New Tool Maps Literacy and Numeracy Skills Across U.S. States and Counties

Literacy and numeracy are cornerstones of our modern society—knowing how to read and work with numbers are essential components of how we learn, work, play, and live. The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Skills Map shows literacy and numeracy patterns among U.S. adults across communities, offering local service providers and stakeholders valuable insight into how best to serve their constituents.

Screenshot of PIAAC tool

AIR provided support and technical expertise input to the National Center for Education Statistics, from the initial stages of developing the Skills Map to providing multiple reviews and testing the map and its related data.

In this Q&A, Jaleh Soroui, principal researcher at AIR, discusses the data behind the tool and how it can be used.

Q: What is the PIAAC Skills Map, and what is it designed to do?

The Four Estimates of the PIAAC Skills Map
  • The percentage of adults with the lowest levels of proficiency.
    • Example of skill level: In literacy, adults at this level may only understand basic vocabulary on familiar topics. In numeracy, skills may be limited to basic counting, sorting, and arithmetic with whole numbers.
  • The percentage of adults with medium proficiency.
    • Example of skill level: In literacy, adults at this level may be able to compare two texts and draw simple inferences, but struggle with more complex evaluations. In numeracy, they may successfully perform two- or three-step calculations and interpret simple graphs, but struggle with complicated problem-solving.
  • The percentage of adults with the highest levels of proficiency.
    • Example of skill level: In literacy, adults at this level can understand, interpret, and synthesize complex information and evaluate the reliability of sources. In numeracy, adults at this level have a range of skills, including the ability to engage in complex reasoning about quantities and data.
  • The average score for all adults (aged 16-74) in the state or county (on the PIAAC scale of 0-500).

Soroui: The PIAAC Skills Map is an interactive mapping tool that provides estimates of adult literacy and numeracy skills for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including all 3,141 U.S. counties. The Skills Map includes four different estimates, conveying the varying skill levels of adults aged 16-74.

The Skills Map allows for comparison of estimates across counties within a state, as well as comparisons of state estimates with national estimates. In addition, users can compare estimates across any two counties or any two states.

To provide context to interpret these results, the skills map includes several demographic variables, such as educational attainment, race/ethnicity, nativity, employment status, and poverty level, from the American Community Survey (ACS).

Q: Who is this tool meant to help?

Soroui: This tool is a valuable resource for state and county policymakers, administrators, educators, and researchers. The PIAAC estimates provide a snapshot of the skills proficiency of working adults for each state and county.

By helping policymakers and administrators learn about the distribution of skills among their adult populations, they are better positioned to draft policies, set priorities, and allocate resources, especially around retraining and upskilling workforces and addressing gaps in education and training. They can interpret the literacy and numeracy results from the Skills Map in the context of their community’s labor force’s educational attainment, work status, poverty level, health, and other statistics. The tool also allows them to compare their state’s estimates with national averages and other localities, and use those estimates to address gaps, or learn from high performing regions.

Researchers interested in area-specific research may also find the tool useful in conducting secondary analyses. In addition, adult educators working with low-skilled populations often use this type of data to demonstrate the scope of adult education needs in their community, which helps them justify funding for their adult students.


Q: What does the tool tell us about the main challenges around adult literacy and numeracy in this country?


Soroui: Because literacy and numeracy are so essential to the way we live, this data can provide insight into many socioeconomic factors. Based on the PIAAC study, one out of five adults in the U.S. have low literacy skills and one out of three lack basic math skills. However, this is the U.S. national data—it doesn’t reflect the scope of the issue at the state and local levels. The data presented through the Skills Map refocuses our attention on the numbers for smaller areas and the skills gaps and needs of working adults in different U.S. communities. For example, members of Congress can use this map as a snapshot of skills at each state in order to draft policies that are based on science and valid data. These policies, which would help close the gap between poor and rich localities, would, in turn, have a major impact on economic growth both at the at national and local levels.

State legislators can do the same. They now have a powerful tool that allows them to examine the counties that are lagging behind and are not equipped to prosper and attract a skilled workforce and economic investments. Conversely, those organizations or companies looking for employees with certain skill sets, like numeracy, could also use it as a planning tool.

Q: How can policymakers and public servants use this tool in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Soroui: COVID-19 has caused monumental change nationwide, including millions of people losing their jobs and incomes. According to the data, the pandemic is hitting already disadvantaged populations the hardest, including racial minorities and blue-collar workers, whose jobs require them to be physically present, such as the hospitality industry. White collar employees can more often work remotely and are more likely to have maintained employment.

Using Skills Map results, policymakers can identify areas with a high concentration of low performing adults, which could be considered economically high-risk, and provide them additional assistance. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Labor’s unemployment data, the mapping tool can help determine the scope of need.

Additionally, the tool can help guide communications experts who need to disseminate COVID-related health information. In order to make these communications effective, local health administrators can tailor the language and complexity of the message according to the literacy and numeracy skills of the local population.

The PIAAC skills map could also help with education-related challenges. Parents have been tasked with supporting or directing their children’s education during the pandemic-related school closures. Students may be at higher risk for learning loss if their parents don’t have the basic literacy or numeracy skills to support their children’s education. Legislators can use the PIAAC Skills Map to identify counties that are likely to have high percentages of low-skilled parents and provide additional educational support and resources for parents of K-12 students.