Author: Anders Rosdahl

In this article, the Danish sociologist Anders Rosdahl presents main findings from PIAAC cycle 1. The article presents skills in the Nordic countries in a comparative perspective and focuses on the uneven distribution of skills with regard to education, age and other factors. It also sheds light on adults with low skills and how adult education matches the needs of this group.

What is PIAAC?

Cycle 1 of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), conducted in 24 countries in 2011-2012, was the most comprehensive international survey of adult skills conducted so far. More than 22,000 persons were interviewed in the four Nordic countries Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Together, these respondents represent around 16 million persons aged 16-65 years.

PIAAC measures skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments among adults. In 2011-2012, representative samples of the population aged 16-65 years were interviewed and tested in the participating countries. In most cases, the tests were conducted in the respondent’s home. The respondents used the interviewer’s computer or – in some cases – paper and pencil.

Description of basic skills

In PIAAC, the measured skills are defined as follows (OECD, 2013).

Literacy: The ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.

Numeracy: 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.

Problem solving in technology-rich environments: The ability to use digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks. For simplicity, we use the expression “problem solving with IT” in this article.

These skills are basic in the sense that a certain skills level is required to live and function in modern society – e.g. in education, working life, voluntary associations and as a citizen with regard to democratic institutions and public service within for example health, income transfers and care.

Skills in PIAAC are measured on a scale from 0 to 500. Most people are placed around the middle of this scale. Few have very high or very low skills. The OECD has divided the scale for literacy and numeracy into six levels (0, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). Skills within problem solving with IT are divided into 5 levels (no score, 0, 1, 2 and 3). The category «no score» includes persons without experience with using a computer as well as persons not being able to or not wanting to take the test on the interviewer’s computer – these persons used paper and pencil to take the test.

There is a strong positive relation between the three types of skills. Those having high (low) skills in one area typically also have high (low) skills in the two other areas.

Literacy and numeracy across the countries

Box 1 gives an overview of basic skills in the participating countries in PIAAC cycle 1.

The average for literacy in Finland (288), Sweden (279) and Norway (278) is higher than the international average for all PIAAC-countries (273). Finland is number two of all countries, next to Japan with a score of 296. Denmark (271) is slightly below the average for all PIAAC-countries. With scores around 250, Spain and Italy are at the bottom regarding literacy skills.

The average score for numeracy is nearly the same in Sweden (279), Norway (278) and Denmark (278), but slightly higher in Finland (282). All four countries are above the international average (269). Again, Japan is number one with a score of 288, and Spain and Italy are at the bottom with a score of below 250. It is estimated that 6-9 points at the scales for literacy and numeracy equal about one year of education (OECD, 2013). Hence, the variations between countries regarding these skills are considerable.

Problem solving with IT

The ranking of countries regarding problem solving with IT cannot be based on the mean proficiency because a substantial share of PIAAC-respondents was not able or did not want to take the test on the interviewer’s computer. This share is an estimate of proportion of the population aged 16-65 years not having sufficient technical IT-skills to conduct the test on the computer.

The shares are 12 (Sweden), 14 (Norway), 14 (Denmark) and 18 (Finland) per cent, which is below the international average of 24 per cent. The ranking of the countries regarding problem solving with IT in box 1 is based on the percentwise share of the population having skills in problem solving with IT at the two highest levels (2+3). Those without sufficient IT-skills are included in percentage base in box 1 and in the following.

Countries ranked after 1) average literacy score, 2) average numeracy score, 3) the percentwise share of the population with skills in problem solving with IT at the two highest levels (2+3). PIAAC 2011-2012.


Level Literacy: Mean score Numeracy: Mean score Problem-solving: Per cent level 2+3
Above the average 296: Japan 288: Japan 44: Sweden
288: Finland 282: Finland 42: Finland
284: Netherlands 280: Flanders (Belgium) 42: Netherlands
280: Australia 280: Netherlands 41: Norway
279: Sweden 279: Sweden 39: Denmark
278: Norway 278: Norway 38: Australia
276: Estonia 278: Denmark 37: Canada
275: Flanders (Belgium) 276: Slovak Rep.
274: Czech Rep. 276: Czech Rep
274: Slovak Rep. 275: Austria
273: Canada 273: Estonia
272: Germany
Average 273: Average 269: Average 36: Germany
273: Korea 268: Australia 35: Japan
272: England/N. Ireland 35: Flanders (Belgium)
35: England/ N. Ireland
34: Average
33: Czech Rep.
32: Austria
Below the average 271: Denmark 265: Canada 31: United States
270: Germany 265: Cyprus 30: Korea
270: United States 263: Korea 28: Estonia
269: Austria 262: England/N. Ireland 26: Slovak Rep.
269: Cyprus 260: Poland 25: Ireland
267: Poland 256: Ireland 19: Poland
267: Ireland 254: France
262: France 253: United States
252: Spain 247: Italy
250: Italy 246: Spain

Note: Column 1 and 2 include 23 countries. Russia is not included because of missing data. Only 19 countries are included in column 3 because problem solving with IT was not measured in Cyprus, France, Italy and Spain (OECD, 2013).

The share of adults at the two highest levels in problem solving with IT is above the international average of 34 per cent in Sweden (44 per cent), Finland (42 per cent), Norway (41 per cent) and Denmark (39 per cent). Sweden is number one of all countries, followed by Finland as number two, Norway as number four and Denmark as number five. Thus, the Nordic countries are at the top when it comes to adult skills in problem solving with IT.

All in all, Finland, Norway and Sweden are above the average in all three skill areas; literacy, numeracy and problem solving with IT. Denmark is above the average in numeracy and problem solving with IT, but below the average in literacy.

In four countries (Cyprus, France, Italy and Spain), problem solving with IT was not measured. These four countries are below the average when it comes to the two other skills. Of the 19 countries in box 1, only the Netherlands, Finland, Norway and Sweden are above the average in all areas. Three of the 19 countries are below the average in all the areas (Ireland, Poland and the USA).

About the author

Anders Rosdahl, sociologist, University of Copenhagen, 1974. He has been head of research at VIVE, the Danish centre for social science research, 1987-2017. Today he is emeritus. He has written more than 70 books and articles about labour market and education, including adult learning. He was the Danish national project manager for PIAAC cycle 1 from 2009 to 2014, participant in several Nordic PIAAC-networks, including the Nordic PIAAC network that published the Nordic PIAAC report ”Adult Skills in the Nordic Region” in 2015. The three articles are based on this report.

OECD (2013). OECD Skills Outlook 2013: first results from the Survey of Adult Skills. OECD Publishing.

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