Japan adults tops in reading, math but slip in tech-related tasks: OECD

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

Japanese adults excel at reading comprehension and handling mathematical information compared with their overseas counterparts, but are less competent when it comes to using technology for problem-solving and other tasks, according to a survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released Tuesday.

Japan was tops in literacy and numeracy on the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills, the international organization’s first survey to measure skills needed in everyday life and the workplace. Japanese scored on average 296 and 288 out of a possible 500 in literacy and numeracy, respectively.

“The outcome shows efforts of our country’s education, including compulsory education, and human resources developments by companies as well as personal development and lifelong studies by the public,” said Yu Kameoka, chief supervisor for social education at the education ministry’s Lifelong Learning Policy Bureau.

Finland finished second in both literacy and numeracy, scoring on average 288 and 282 points. Coming third in literacy was the Netherlands with 284 points and Belgium in numeracy with 280. On average, the 24 participating countries and regions scored 273 in literacy and 269 in numeracy.

Japanese did less well in problem-solving in technology-rich environments, coming 10th based on the percentage of people who scored more than 291 points out of 500. Japan’s average of 35 percent barely eclipsed the overall average among participants of 34 percent.

Sweden topped the field with 44 percent, followed by the Netherlands with 42 percent.

The survey is part of the OECD’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, to measure “the key cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper.”

About 157,000 people between the ages of 16 and 65 were surveyed from August 2011 to February 2012. A total of 5,173 Japanese took part.

According to the education ministry, OECD member nations are increasingly cognizant of the need to nurture citizens’ skills to secure employment and economic growth amid globalization and the transition to knowledge-based societies.

The OECD hopes governments and firms will use the survey to develop economic, educational and social policies to nurture skills.

The literacy tests assessed respondents’ ability to draw information from texts to achieve goals and gain knowledge. For example, respondents might have been tested on their ability to make a phone call to a designated person after reading an instruction manual at a hotel or whether they could find a particular library book using an online catalog.

The numeracy tasks evaluated the ability to apply, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas. Questions such as inferring certain information from food product labels and creating graphs were cited as examples.

The survey also measured the ability to use technology to solve problems and accomplish complex tasks.

Cited as example questions were ordering a product over the Internet or creating a list of names using a spreadsheet and sending it as an email attachment.

Respondents answered questions on a computer or with pencil and paper. Those who opted for pencil and paper were not assessed for problem-solving in a technology-rich environment.

  • zer0_0zor0

    If I recall correctly, Japan has been the top country in literacy since the Edo period (circa 18th century). Maybe that statistic (over 70% literacy) was only for Edo proper, however.

  • Mark Garrett

    5,173 surveyed out of 120 million. #seemslegit

    • Ron NJ

      Don’t forget the all-important line: “Respondents answered questions on a computer or with pencil and paper.
      Those who opted for pencil and paper were not assessed for
      problem-solving in a technology-rich environment.”
      Very easy way to skew the two sections which Japanese performed poorly in unless they release data stating how many participants used each method in each country.

      • Mark Garrett

        Details shmeetails.

  • Toolonggone

    >About 157,000 people between the ages of 16 and 65 were surveyed from August 2011 to
    February 2012. A total of 5,173 Japanese took part.

    Don’t fall for the trick of sample size. The data does not provide any specific demographic information, such as socio-economic class or race/ethnicity. The report just randomly gives us the numbers to make them look like real, but students from high family income should do fairly better than those from lower-middle to lower income family. Moreover, not all respondents are given exactly the same sample questions in this survey. I heard that the OECD is receiving the criticism for its increasing bias on recent survey reports. So, we should take the results with a grain of salt.

  • Starviking

    I’m always very wary of these studies. There are too many factors in play that could skew the results: cultural differences, the need to maintain national pride, style of questions and problems, the level of difficulty in the test are a few that come to mind.