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Interactive Skills Map: Key Tool for Comparing Adult Proficiency Levels

July 16, 2020

A new interactive skills map now gives researchers the ability to compare and analyze state- and county-level estimates of adult literacy and numeracy proficiency. Developed for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) by Westat, the U.S. PIAAC Skills Map enables researchers to better inform policymakers seeking to plan and allocate resources and target educational interventions for specified populations.

“The Skills Map answers the growing demand by policymakers for accurate data pertinent to their own state and counties,” says Tom Krenzke, Vice President and Associate Director in Westat’s Statistics and Evaluation Sciences unit. “It also increases the level of information provided from the U.S. component of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Survey sponsored by NCES,” he adds. PIAAC is an international survey sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that examines and assesses literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving skills of adults ages 16 to 74 across participating countries.

“What’s unique about the tool is that statistical comparisons of adult basic skills proficiency can be made in 2 areas at a time—comparing a state to another state, a county to another county, a state to a county, or a state to the nation,” says Mr. Krenzke. “Researchers now have the ability to fine-tune their analyses—they no longer have to rely only on national-level estimates.”

How Was the Skills Map Developed?

“Because it would be very expensive to collect enough data through face-to-face interviews of thousands of Americans to generate reliable county-level estimates, we needed to create a cost-efficient way of producing this data,” Mr. Krenzke explains. “So we combined the data from the surveys we conducted in 2012, 2014, and 2017 to increase the sample size and built a statistical model in conjunction with data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) for years 2013 to 2017. The ACS provides demographic characteristics for states and counties, including educational attainment, race/ethnicity, nativity, employment status, and poverty level. Then we used a statistical technique called small area estimation to produce the state and county estimates.” Staff in Westat’s Interaction Design group worked to assist in producing a clean look and user-friendly site.

How Is the Skills Map Being Used?

“Since the tool was released, there have been several blogs and articles produced to describe literacy/numeracy skills levels in various states and counties. We can also suggest a number of ways it can be applied to current issues,” Mr. Krenzke says. “For example, media outlets can use it to choose the language they use to report on issues like COVID-19 so they are better understood by people in their geographic reach. Some people might need a better explanation of what ‘flattening the curve’ means, and broadcasters may want to tailor their messages to the literacy level of adults in their broadcast area.

“Also, when we come out of this pandemic,” he continues, “employers will be seeking to fill jobs. So they may want to use the Skills Map to find geographic areas that have adults with a certain skill level. Or there may be a need to assess if COVID-19 mortality rates correlate to literacy or numeracy proficiency skills in some way.

“The Skills Map will undoubtedly have other applications, which makes this a very exciting tool, and new data will be available when we complete the next survey for NCES in 2022,” notes Mr. Krenzke.

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