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Adult skills. the good news, the not quite so good news and the not good news. Jan Hagston – What is PIAAC? PIAAC, the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies is an international survey of adult skills in:

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adult skills

Adult skills

the good news, the not quite so good news and the not good news

Jan Hagston –


What is PIAAC?

  • PIAAC, the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies is an international survey of adult skills in:
    • literacy - the ability to understand and respond appropriately to written texts. [Literacy also included the components of reading - word meaning, sentence processing and passage comprehension]
    • numeracy - the ability to use numerical and mathematical concepts
    • problem solving in technology-rich environments – the capacity to access, interpret and analyse information found, transformed and communicated in digital environments.


Proficiency is described in terms of a scale of 500 points divided into levels.

Each level summarises what a person with a particular score can do.

about piaac
About PIAAC?
  • 24 countries or regions initially took part in the survey. Another 10 have since taken part and more will follow
  • ABS conducted this household survey in Australia
  • People 16 – 64 years of age are surveyed. Australia surveys 15 – 74 year olds
  • The survey can be done by pen and paper or computer
  • Participants answer a significant number of background questions which, together with the survey data, provide the potential for rich analysis
  • Results can be compared with previous international surveys of adult skills
the quite good news

The quite good news

Problem solving in technology rich environments


Problemsolving in technology-rich environments

  • Proportion of total Australian population aged 15 – 74 years

4.1 million


Note: ‘Not classified’ refers to those adults who either opted out of the computer based assessment or who failed a basic ICT test or who had no computer experience.

the good bad stories

The good & bad stories

Literacy and numeracy


Literacy and numeracy

Literacy: 200,000

Numeracy: 230,000

Literacy: 2.4 million

Numeracy: 1.8 million

Literacy: 6.3 million

Numeracy: 5.2 million

Literacy: 1.7 million

Numeracy: 2.5 million

Literacy: 620,000

Numeracy: 1.1 million

Literacy: 5.0 million

Numeracy: 5.4 million

Proportions of persons in Literacy and Numeracy in PIAAC. Total Australian population aged 15-74 years.

numeracy what s it mean to be below level 1
Numeracy– what’s it mean to be below Level 1?

Adults were asked to look at a photograph containing two cartons of coca cola bottles (changed to water bottles for PIAAC) and give the total number of bottles in the two full cases.

This was a Pre-Level 1 item:

Tasks at this level are set in concrete, familiar contexts where the mathematical content is explicit with little or no text or distractors and that require only simple processes such as counting, sorting, performing basic arithmetic operations with whole numbers or money, or recognizing common spatial representations.

1.1 million Australians aged 15-74 years of age are operating at this level.

numeracy what can you do at level 2
Numeracy– what can you do at Level 2?

Adults were asked to look at the petrol gauge image. The task states that the petrol tank holds 48 litres and asks how many litres remain in the tank. A range of answers are allowable as correct.

This was a Level 2 item:

Tasks in this level require the respondent to identify and act upon mathematical information and ideas embedded in a range of common contexts where the mathematical content is fairly explicit or visual with relatively few distractors. Tasks tend to require the application of two or more steps or processes involving, for example, calculation with whole numbers and common decimals, percents and fractions; simple measurement and spatial representation; estimation; and interpretation of relatively simple data and statistics in texts, tables and graphs.

About 3.6 million Australians aged 15-74 years of age could NOT answer this question.

numeracy the bad news
Numeracy– the bad news

The percentage (and number) of people at Level 2 or below in numeracy has increased.

  • Gender and numeracy
  • 49.4% of males are at levels 1 or 2
  • 59.0% of females are at levels 1 or 2

Literacy- What does it mean to be at a level?

One of the easiest literacy tasks (categorised as Below Level 1) directs the reader to look at a medicine label to determine the “maximum number of days you should take this medicine”.


Below Level 1 tasks

  • brief texts
  • familiar topics
  • locate a single piece of specific information
  • seldom any competing information
  • requested information is identical in form to information in the question or the prompt
  • only basic vocabulary knowledge is required
  • the reader is not required to understand the structure of sentences or paragraphs
  • do not make use of any features specific to digital texts.

About the task and text

  • “days” appears in both the prompt and the text
  • There is no competing information as the word “days” appears nowhere else in the text
  • The word “maximum” indicates that the respondent needs to look for a number
  • The number “7” is located next to the word “days”.

Asked the “maximum number of days you should take this medicine”.

620,000 Australians aged 15-74 years of age are operating at this level.


Level 4

Tasks at this level often require respondents to perform multiple-step operations to integrate, interpret, or synthesise information from complex or lengthy continuous, non-continuous, mixed, or multiple type texts.

It may be necessary to make complex inferences and apply background knowledge.

Many tasks require identifying and understanding one or more specific, non-central idea(s) in the text in order to interpret or evaluate subtle evidence-claim or persuasive discourse relationships.

Conditional information is frequently present.

Competing information is present and sometimes as prominent as correct information.


Literacy item

Level = 4 (low)


Literacy item

Level = 4

Only about 2 million Australians aged 15-74 years of age COULD answer this question.


Literacy - the good news

The percentage of people at Level 2 or below in literacy has decreased but …

the number of people at Level 2 or below has increased.


Why do skills decline after 44 years of age?

  • Possible reasons:
  • Changed use of skills
  • Decline in cognitive skills
  • So:
  • May make little difference to daily life as acquired knowledge may offset skills decline
  • We seldom need to function at the highest level
  • Demands may reduce in later life
  • BUT, for those working with older people, need to keep in mind this decline in skills, particularly for those working with people over 65.

Further PIAAC information

  • The OECD website for PIAAC is:
  • PIAAC reports are available from:
  • For the details of the Australian results go to the ABS website at:
  • PIAAC conference videos: The two key overview videos are these two:
  • A recent (May 2014) analysis of the Australian PIAAC data has been done by the Productivity Commission: