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Understanding Adult Literacy in the U. S.

Research indicates that there continues to be a need for Federal investment in adult education programs, in part because of data suggesting that the United States is losing ground to many of its economic competitors as measured by the employment-related skills of working-age adults. 

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), also known as the Survey of Adult Skills, is a cyclical, large-scale international study that was developed under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). PIAAC is a direct household assessment designed to assess and compare the basic skills and competencies of adults around the world. The assessment focuses on cognitive and workplace skills needed for successful participation in 21st-century society and the global economy.  In the U.S., PIAAC is funded and led by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education. 

The PIAAC Gateway provides access to U.S. and international resources on PIAAC. The Gateway includes information and resources for researchers, practitioners, program managers, policy makers, and more. 

PIAAC Cycle 1 (2012-2017) included three rounds of data collection in the U.S., each conducted in 2012, 2014, and 2017. From these rounds of data collection, NCES developed the interactive U.S. PIAAC Skills Map: State and County Indicators of Adult Literacy and Numeracy, an online mapping tool with estimates of adults' literacy and numeracy skills for all U.S. states and counties. More information on the state and county estimates can be found here

PIAAC Cycle 2 (2022-2029) includes two rounds of data collection in the U.S., each being conducted in 2022-2023, and 2024-2029. There are several differences between PIAAC Cycle 1 and Cycle 2. PIAAC Cycle 2 continues the direct assessment of literacy, numeracy, and includes a new domain called adaptive problem solving. The U.S. PIAAC assessment has had a new section added to collect data on the financial literacy of the adult population. In addition to the reading components, PIAAC Cycle 2 includes component measures of numeracy. In PIAAC Cycle 2, the direct assessment is conducted on a tablet platform. 

To learn more about the NCES PIAAC Schedule and Plans page, click here

To learn more about the 43 million U. S. adults with low literacy skills and the 74 million adults with low numeracy skills, click here.

To learn more about PIAAC and see Frequently Asked Questions, click here

To learn more about the U.S. Prison Study data collection, click here

Ongoing and Completed Research

The Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) at the U.S. Department of Education uses national leadership funds from section 242 of AEFLA to conduct rigorous research and evaluation. OCTAE is currently collaborating with the Institute of Education Sciences on a national assessment of adult education that is examining both the implementation of adult education policies and programs and the effectiveness of adult education strategies.  

  • First, the National Study of the Implementation of Adult Education Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act provides information on adult education state policies and local program practices during the program year 2018-2019:  
    • Linking Adult Education to Workforce Development in 2018-19: Early Implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act at the Local Level  – Many adults need help with basic skills like reading, writing, mathematics, and English proficiency to succeed in the American workforce. Congress has long provided resources to help individuals address these educational challenges, most recently through Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014. But WIOA includes new requirements and incentives to strengthen the link between adult education and the overall workforce development system, to move adults into and along a career pathway. This report examines the extent to which local adult education providers' instructional approaches and coordination with other agencies reflect this link, highlighting the challenges providers experience in collecting related performance data.
    • National Study of the Implementation of Adult Education Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: Compendium of Survey Results from 2018-2019  – This report provides data tables from a survey of State directors and approximately 1,600 local providers of adult education in the 50 States and the District of Columbia. It also includes analyses of provider-level data obtained by states for the National Reporting System. These data include information on the types of organizations providing adult education services and on enrollment in each type of program offered. The data present a snapshot of implementation under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act during the 2018-2019 program year.
  • Second, the Connecting Adults to Success (CATS) Study seeks to expand evidence on how to support learners in their career pathways Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act encourages State agencies and local providers to find ways to facilitate postsecondary enrollment, credential attainment, and higher earnings for the nearly one million learners who participate in adult education programs. One promising approach is providing these learners with career navigators, namely staff whose dedicated role is to advise learners in career and college planning and to help them address challenges as they follow through on their plans. Navigators can be a significant expense for adult education providers, but the staff often receive little training despite their diverse backgrounds and thus may not be equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to effectively guide learners. This study is testing whether providing a promising model of training to navigators leads to improvements in learner outcomes.

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) at the Institute of Education Sciences reviewed the research on Washington State’s Integrated Basic Education Skills and Training  (I-BEST) program and its impacts on community college students. Based on the research, the WWC found that I-BEST has positive effects on industry-recognized credential, certificate, or license completion; potentially positive effects on short-term employment; potentially positive effects on short-term earnings; and no discernible effects on credit accumulation. Read the full report and learn more about the studies that contributed to this rating.

Examples of other IES reviews and guides: 

Additionally, the Institute of Education Sciences also supports field-initiated research to help understand and improve the ability of the adult education system to provide services. The researchers mentioned below have been conducting various research projects in partnership with adult education providers, primarily through the National Center for Education Research

Examples of IES supported field-initiated projects and partnerships: 

Additional items of information:

  • To learn more about funding opportunities through NCER’s standing topic area, Postsecondary and Adult Education, calling for additional research relevant to adult education, click here
  • To find additional IES publications relevant to adult learners, click here

Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS)

The Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS) is a national leadership initiative of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) to expand evidence-based practice in the field of adult education. 

LINCS demonstrates OCTAE's commitment to delivering high-quality, on-demand educational opportunities to practitioners of adult education, so those practitioners can help adult learners successfully transition to postsecondary education and 21st century jobs. 

One of five components of LINCS, the LINCS Resource Collection, provides online access to freely-available high-quality, evidence-based, vetted materials to help adult education practitioners and state and local staff improve programs, services, instruction, and teacher quality. Spanning 13 topic areas, the collection includes research articles and briefs.