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Literacy rates in the United States vary depending on how literacy is defined. Some governments label as literate any individual who can read a couple of thousand simple sight words learned in the first four grades of primary school. The United States Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook reported 99.8 percent literacy rate for the US in 2008 was based on a simple definition of literacy as individuals age 15 and over who can read and write.

The OECD and the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement (IEA) - an independent cooperative of national research institutions and governmental research agencies based in the Netherlands - have developed more comprehensive approaches to the concept of literacy and educational achievement.

  • The OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) requires a complex understanding of not only language but numbers and images common to a culture. The Survey of Adult Skills, conducted in OECD countries as a part of PIAAC, goes even further to measure critical cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper. This is the only international survey that measures skills of total adult populations in a methodologically uniform manner to enable cross-country comparisons.
  • The OECD triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds.
  • Similarly, the IEA's Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assesses reading comprehension among students after the equivalent of four years of schooling and mean age of at least 9.5 years. 

The United States is generally performing well among peer economies. Consistent with common perceptions of the US educational system, the US consistently ranked better in PIAAC (adults) and PISA (15-year-olds) for reading and general literacy than in the numeracy or science-based assessments. East Asian countries, particularly in the PISA science assessments, performed strongly; top-scorer China earned 580 points in 2012, nearly 100 points higher than the US. The poorer performance of the US in the PIAAC assessments as compared to the PISA assessments suggests either an erosion of skills into adulthood and/or an improvement of educational attainment in today's youth. PIRLS data provides some evidence for the latter, with fourth grade reading achievements markedly improving during the period 2000-2011.

It is important to acknowledge that these country-level statistics can easily mask the income disparities between schools and districts throughout the United States. Knoema users are encouraged to explore the OECD and IEA datasets to better understand the socioeconomic influences on education access and attainment.

In this dashboard, users can examine the key results for the United States in all three programs, PIAAC, PISA, and PIRLS.

Source: Education Statistics (World Bank), May 2015

For the definitions of the indicators see the bottom of the page. Please consult PIAACPISA & PIRLS programs web sites for additional information about methodology and detailed data descriptions. 

Expenditures & Costs          Literacy & Achievement          Participation & Attainment

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