Annals of psychometry: adult cognitive skills by country

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

You may have read (NYTimes; enjoy the 500 expert comments!) about the recent OECD study of adult skills, which showed Americans lagging behind most other advanced countries. The outcomes more or less recapitulate the PISA results, which are produced by the same organization, led by Andreas Schleicher (Without data, you are just another person with an opinion; Schleicher was trained in physics before moving into educational assessment). Studying adults rather than students makes generational differences apparent: young Koreans scored near the top in the world, whereas older Koreans, who grew up in a much poorer country, do less well. This was true as well for Finns, but countries like the UK, US and Australia showed almost no difference between the young and old. It would appear that the Flynn Effect has abated for the current adult population in those countries.

The most striking findings in the report to someone already familiar with this kind of country level data, are that:

(I) Job growth in areas requiring superior ability is high, whereas there is almost no growth in other sectors (see figure below and figure 1.3 in the report). The biggest decline in jobs is in manufacturing-related areas, which are characterized by low, but not the lowest, scores. The number of menial jobs, characterized by the lowest scores, held their own. In other words, in developed countries jobs for factory workers declined while maids, gardeners and servants held their own… a grim future of income inequality based on cognitive ability?

(Difference between mean scores of skilled and “elementary” occupations is about 1 population SD — Table A3.19. This is about the same as mean score difference between college graduates and those that did not reach upper secondary education! Table A3.9 (l))

(II) Scores on numeracy and literacy showed high correlations: 0.8 — 0.9 in every country. This is much higher than, for instance, M and V correlation on the SAT.

Here are national score ranges for math skills:

This figure shows that Japanese high school graduates have better literacy skills than Italian college graduates. There is plenty more data like this. Interestingly the standard deviations in scores for Japan and Korea are on the low end compared to other countries.


Roughly every fifth Finn and Japanese reads at high levels (Level 4 or 5 on the Survey of Adult Skills). This means, for example, that they can perform multiple-step operations to integrate, interpret, or synthesise information from complex or lengthy texts that involve conditional and/or competing information; and they can make complex inferences and appropriately apply background knowledge as well as interpret or evaluate subtle truth claims or arguments. They are also good at numbers: they can analyse and engage in complex reasoning about quantities and data, statistics and chance, spatial relationships, change, proportions and formulae; perform tasks involving multiple steps and select appropriate problem-solving strategies and processes; and understand arguments and communicate well-reasoned explanations for answers or choices.

How does someone who can’t do these things obtain a good college degree? If only 20% of Finns and Japanese can do these things (the largest fraction among all nations), what fraction of US students are ready for serious college work?

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.