Teschler on Topic
Leland Teschler • Executive Editor
On Twitter @ DW_LeeTeschler
One of my college classmates during my sophomore year was a guy who majored in aerospace engineering. He consistently got poor grades in his engineering classes mainly because he had trouble with the math that was involved. I later heard that he’d transferred out of the engineering college to major in political science. This move let him go from perennially being on academic probation to maintaining nearly an A average.
I recalled his transformation recently when stumbling over the results of a survey by the Center for Global Assessment, an organization within the Educational Testing Service. CGA research shows that a significant number of adults with bachelor’s degrees or higher have poor skills not only in working with numbers but also with literacy.
The analysis comes from a study called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. This study gave participants questions that required numerical reasoning and comprehending what they read. Test takers hailed from 24 countries that included the U.S., Canada, several European and Scandinavian countries, Japan, and the Russian Federation.
The questions on the skills test aren’t what you’d call stumpers. One shows an advertisement for a product carrying a regular price and a discounted price during a sale. Test takers have to calculate the percent of the discount. Another question shows a table of performance measures you might see in a Consumer Reports product comparison and asks test-takers to identify the product that earned the highest rating in one of the categories.
When answering questions like these, U.S. adults overall ranked below average in numerical, literary, and problem-solving skills. (Interestingly, Scandinavian countries placed near the top in all three categories – perhaps motivation for the idea of the U.S. buying Greenland?) But the study also revealed substantial variations in performance among educated adults, with as many as a quarter of those holding college degrees scoring less than the top quarter of those who stopped at high school.
It also turns out that college grads in several other countries score better than U.S. college grads in numerical and literary reasoning. For example, college grads in Switzerland, Norway, and even Bermuda scored higher than U.S. college grads on average when it came to numeracy; Canadian and U.S. college grads were about the same. For literary reasoning, Bermuda and Norway bested U.S. college grads, though the U.S. average was higher than that of Canada, Switzerland, and Italy.
Researchers also parsed their results by the age of the test takers. This led them to see that the predictive capacity of education diminishes over time – some older adults gain skills while many others lose them regardless of educational background.
That may be true, but I can’t help but think of my math-impaired political science-major friend. Apparently, you don’t have to know much about math to be a political scientist, but perhaps you should. DW
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