How inequalities in acquiring skills evolve

by Francesca Borgonovi
Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Since 2000, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been a key source of information on how well societies and education systems have equipped 15-year-old students with the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies. However important this information is, most 15-year-old students can expect to stay in education or training for at least another three to four years after they are eligible to sit the PISA test; those who go on to complete higher degrees are looking at around another ten years of study. The tendency to devote more and more years to the development of skills through formal schooling, further education and training implies that the effectiveness of education and training systems should not be judged solely on how well 15-year-old students have mastered certain skills.

PISA data reveal large disparities in achievement not only across countries, but also within countries across different subgroups of students. In particular, compared to other students, students from socio-economically disadvantaged households score lower in the three core subjects considered in PISA: reading, mathematics and science. However, PISA by itself cannot identify how disparities in achievement evolve between the teenage years and young adulthood.

A new OECD working paper released today combines data from PISA and the Survey of Adult Skills to identify how socio-economic disparities in achievement evolve as students make the transition from compulsory schooling into further education, training or the labour market. In most countries, the socio-economic disparities in literacy and numeracy observed among 15-year-old students not only persist in young adulthood, but tend to widen.

Further education and participation in the labour market are crucial for acquiring skills after compulsory schooling. But socio-economically disadvantaged young people are considerably less likely than their more advantaged peers to attend post-secondary education and training, and are more likely to drop out of education without a secondary level qualification. They are also more likely to be unemployed or out of the labour force and to work in jobs that require little advanced, on-the-job training or practice of higher-order thinking skills.

Although it is not possible to establish causality, the data suggest that, once compulsory schooling is over, the opportunities available to young people to develop their skills diverge – in ways that are largely related to socio-economic status.

Adult Skills in Focus No. 5: Do socio-economic disparities in skills grow between the teenage years and young adulthood?
OECD Working Paper No. 155: Youth in Transition: How does the Cohort Participating in PISA Fare in PIAAC
PISA 2015 Results
Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)

Chart Source: OECD Survey of Adult Skills (2012, 2015), ; OECD PISA (2000, 2003), ;

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