Addressing the Skills Gap for Students and Young Adults - Higher Education
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Addressing the Skills Gap for Students and Young Adults

by Eric Gaze


Eric Graze

Eric Gaze

The latest research from the Education Testing Service Center for Research on Human Capital and Education showed that U.S. students across all socioeconomic levels scored lower than students in most countries around the world in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills. The study examined millennials born between 1980 and the early 2000s ages 16 to 34 and measured the 21st century skills needed by individuals to make measurable improvements in their life and to prosper professionally.

The results were disappointing for both the wealthiest cohorts of students, as well as students from lower socioeconomic and minority groups. Their scores indicate a worrisome skills gap.

Of particular concern is the percentage of students scoring below the minimum numeracy standard (below level 3): 54 percent of White, 83 percent of Hispanic and 88 percent of Black millennials did not achieve this minimum benchmark. Controlling for educational attainment makes the White-Black gap even more telling.

As evidenced by the near 100 percent scoring below level 3, it is expected that students who do not graduate high school are more likely to be quantitatively illiterate. As White students complete more years of education, the percentage that are quantitatively illiterate steadily drops. However, increasing levels of educational attainment does little to improve Black students’ quantitative literacy.

Recent research papers linking racism to higher mortality rates point to the pervasiveness and severity of racial inequality in our country. Many point to education as the answer, but not all educational opportunities are created equally. In our data-driven society, economic success is strongly linked to numeracy. If we truly want to provide access to the American dream for all of our students, it is imperative that we address the failings and inequities of our current educational system, and the mathematics curriculum in particular.

These new results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) are not surprising because the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data has consistently indicated that U.S. students have lagged behind their counterparts in other countries. Thus, it would be expected that millennials would not have magically acquired skills to put them ahead of other adults around the world.

The Adult Literacy and Lifeskills (ALL) Survey conducted between 2003 and 2008 established that U.S. adults were near the bottom of such skills compared to their international peers.

To address the skills gap, educators need to know what assessment questions and levels are being used. For numeracy, the average score of U.S. millennials was 255, which was the lowest of all countries in this cohort (Black millennials averaged 219). A typical PIAAC question at level 2 with a difficulty score of 250 is to compute reimbursement for a trip with mileage given (in a logbook) and the rate of $0.35 per mile and $40.00 per diem also given. Roughly half of students cannot do this.

A level 3 question asks students to look at plans for making a cardboard box with given dimensions, and then decide which of four available plans best represents the assembled box. A level 4 question (the highest level for numeracy) asks students to interpret a stacked bar graph with percentages as the dependent variable and years on the x-axis. Only 17 percent of students with education “above high school” can correctly answer questions like this!

These examples emphasize the crucial aspect of proportional reasoning involved in all of them. Rates, units, dimensional analysis, percentages and visual displays of quantitative information are all middle-school math topics that are largely abandoned in high school in our single-minded pursuit of algebra.

We need a robust curriculum that develops these skills that are so critical to the ways in which in we use quantitative information in our daily lives. Educators must continue the development of high-quality quantitative reasoning (QR) courses that emphasize the sophisticated reasoning used in elementary mathematics.

The PIAAC results also highlighted that U.S. millennials scored lower than international students in problem-solving in technology-rich environments.

For example, a typical medium-level difficulty item asks adults to “organize large amounts of information in a multiple column worksheet using multiple explicit criteria.”

The mathematics education community needs to embrace spreadsheets as the technology of choice in our mathematics classrooms. We truly do live in a data-driven society, and this is evidenced by the questions in both the numeracy and technology sections of PIAAC.

Students working with spreadsheets learn not only how to organize and clean data, but also vital skills in how best to create visual displays of quantitative information for effective communication. Algebraic reasoning is also developed via the input/output interface and the cell references involved in entering formulas.

In my Thinking Quantitatively QR course, I emphasize spreadsheets and proportional reasoning throughout, developing the critical skills students need for informed decision making in their personal, professional and civic lives. These are the skills students need to fully participate in the 21st century, a world awash in numbers.

Eric Gaze directs the Quantitative Reasoning (QR) Program at Bowdoin College and is a lecturer in the Mathematics Department.

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