What is this metric and why is it important?
Numeracy is a core part of the logical thinking and reasoning strategies that individuals need for everyday activities. Further, basic or often advanced skill levels are required for opportunities to participate in innovation activities. We report on both the percentage of people in a country that have shown advanced skill levels on an international test and the average score on that test.
How is Canada doing?
- The average numeracy score for Canada is 265 out of 500, which is higher than the OECD average of 262 but well below global leaders like Japan (288), Finland (282), and the Netherlands (280).
- 12% of those in Canada placed in the advanced literacy levels, which is slightly above the OECD average of 11% but still well behind leading countries like Japan (20%), Finland (19%), and Sweden (19%).
- Unlike literacy, there are significant differences between the demonstrated numeracy skills for men versus women. Men scored 15 points higher in Canada, whereas the difference in the OECD overall is 12 points.
- There is minimal variation across most provinces; however, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut score substantially below the Canadian average.
Numeracy is defined as “the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas, in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.” The test measures applied numeracy—that is, how well individuals use mathematical concepts in real-world applications, “not whether someone can solve a set of equations in isolation.” The test is administered by the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Participants receive a score (out of 500), and scores are categorized into five levels. Levels 4 and 5 indicate advanced numeracy skills, while Level 2 indicates basic competency. Those who score below Level 2 are considered to have numeracy skills inadequate for full and effective participation in the economy and society.
Numeracy is one of three skills from PIAAC that we investigate, the others being literacy and problem-solving in technology rich environments (PS-TRE). Living and working in a rapidly changing society and economy requires that all people have basic levels of all three, as well as capacity to learn new knowledge and skills throughout their lives. Skills gaps between men and women might contribute to differences in employment and income, but may also reflect antecedent barriers to skills development opportunities. That is, women’s slightly lower numeracy scores might be a consequence of girls being pushed out of opportunities to develop and use numeracy skills, as well as a partial explanation for their later lower rates of employment in occupations with higher numeracy requirements.
PIAAC is still a relatively new and infrequently used assessment, so it tends to provide only a snapshot of adult skills. Moreover, adult skills in aggregate do not tend to move very quickly, so changes over time are minimal. The differences between countries are also quite small, and these two facts together make this metric difficult to use in explaining differences in innovation.
However, the distribution of skills attainment across different demographic categories can play an important role in understanding differences in individuals’ participation in and benefit from the economy. More work is needed to link skills scores with achievement in education and the economy.