Frequently Asked Questions
1 - What is PIAAC?
PIAAC is the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, an international assessment of the foundational information-processing skills required to participate in the social and economic life of advanced economies in the 21st century.
An initiative of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PIAAC provides a highly detailed survey of skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE) among adults between the ages of 16 and 65 in over 40 countries and sub-national regions, along with all of Canada’s provinces and territories. These core skills form the basis for cultivating the other, higher-level skills necessary to function at home, school, work, and in the community.
Data from PIAAC provide a measure of cognitive and workplace skills, a rich evidence base for policy-relevant analysis, a better measure of a country’s “stock” of skills, insights into whether education and training programs are focusing on the right competencies, and the capacity to compare skills across a broad sampling of countries around the world.
2. What information does PIAAC collect?
The PIAAC survey is made up of three main parts: a direct skills assessment, a background questionnaire, and a module on the use of skills.
- The direct skills assessment examines individual proficiencies in the three foundational skills: literacy, numeracy, and PS-TRE. Each skill is measured along a continuum that has been divided into different levels of proficiency to help interpret the results.
- The background questionnaire puts the results of the skills assessment into context. It allows participant results to be classified according to a range of factors that can influence skills outcomes (e.g., age, education, employment status).
- The module on the use of skills collects information from each respondent on how he or she uses a range of skills at work and in everyday life. It looks at cognitive skills such as reading or computer use, as well as non-cognitive skills such as social interaction, cooperation, learning, organization and planning, and physical/motor activity.
3. How was this information collected?
The PIAAC survey was conducted by Statistics Canada on behalf of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada; Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC, formerly HRSDC); and other partners.
Over 27,000 adults aged 16 to 65 across the country completed the computer-based survey through in-home interviews between November 2011 and June 2012. A paper-based version was provided for a small number of respondents who chose not to, or were unable to, complete the survey on computer. Samples were selected in sufficient numbers to provide statistically reliable results not only for Canada as a whole, but also for each province and territory. In addition, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and official-language minority populations were oversampled to provide detailed information about these groups.
Survey participants completed the survey in English or French.
The next cycle of PIAAC data collection is scheduled for 2021, and research and development work is already under way
4. Who funded PIAAC?
In Canada, PIAAC was funded by the following partners:
- Employment and Social Development Canada;
- The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, on behalf of the ministries and departments responsible for education in all thirteen provinces and territories;
- The Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency;
- Citizenship and Immigration Canada;
- Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada; and
- The Public Health Agency of Canada.
5. What countries participated in PIAAC?
|Round 1 (2008–13)
||Round 2 (2012–16)
||Round 3 (2016–19)
| Australia, Austria, Belgium (Flanders), Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom (England/N. Ireland), United States
|| Chile, Greece, Indonesia, Israel, Lithuania, New Zealand, Singapore, Slovenia, Turkey
|| Ecuador, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Peru, United States
6. Why is Canada’s sample size larger than that of many other countries?
Canada is a diverse country made up of two official languages, a significant Aboriginal population, 13 provinces and territories, and a large immigrant population. Truly understanding the capacity of our country requires more than a pan-Canadian overview.
The smaller sample sizes used by many countries only provide an understanding at the national level. In Canada, education policy is developed and decided at the provincial and territorial level, so a larger sample is required to obtain statistically reliable results within each jurisdiction.
In addition, Canada oversampled Aboriginal peoples, immigrants, and official-language minorities to better understand skill levels within these populations.
7. What is literacy?
Literacy is more than just reading the words on a page or a screen. Literacy in PIAAC is defined as “understanding, evaluating, using, and engaging with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” This definition highlights the range of cognitive processes involved in literacy: it stresses that literacy extends well beyond the skills of decoding or comprehending texts, to using them appropriately in context.
People’s literacy is assessed in PIAAC using both print-based and digital texts. In addition to being displayed onscreen, digital texts include a range of features that are not found in print, such as menus, scroll bars, and hypertext links. Both types of texts can be: continuous (e.g., sentences that provide descriptions or instructions); non-continuous (e.g., words contained in forms or organized around graphic features like diagrams and maps); mixed (e.g., a newspaper article that combines the two); or of multiple types (e.g., a blog post that contains an initial text followed by a string of comments).
8. What is numeracy?
Numeracy is more than just the ability to count or perform basic mathematical operations. Numeracy in PIAAC 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.” This definition highlights the importance of numeracy to a wide range of skills and knowledge used in everyday life, extending beyond quantity and numbers to include things like dimensions, shapes, patterns, and relationships. It recognizes that managing a situation or solving a problem in a real context — such as understanding purchases and receipts, reading maps, cooking, or engaging in home repairs — requires more than an understanding of basic mathematical operations. It also requires the ability to compute and interpret things like proportions, measurements, and statistics.
9. What is problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE)?
PS-TRE is defined by PIAAC as “using digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.” It represents the intersection of what are sometimes described as “computer literacy” skills (i.e., the capacity to use computer-based tools and applications) and the cognitive skills required to solve problems.
PS-TRE covers the specific types of problems people deal with when using information and communications technologies. Basic knowledge regarding the use of input devices (e.g., keyboard and mouse, screen displays); file management tools; applications (e.g., word processing, e-mail); and graphic interfaces is essential for performing assessment tasks. However, the objective is not to test the use of computer-based tools and applications in isolation, but rather to assess the capacity of adults to use these tools to access, process, evaluate, and analyze information effectively.
10. What do the different levels of proficiency mean?
Respondents are categorized into proficiency levels for literacy, numeracy, and PS-TRE. These proficiency levels correspond to the level of difficulty of the tasks they are able to complete.
If a respondent scores at a particular proficiency level, it does not mean that he or she cannot complete tasks at higher levels. It only means that even if he or she does successfully complete some tasks at a higher level, the probability of consistently doing so is low.
To view a description of literacy proficiency levels, please click here.
To view a description of numeracy proficiency levels, please click here.
To view a description of PS-TRE proficiency levels, please click here.
11. What are the limitations/caveats when comparing results from PIAAC with previous survey results?
PIAAC differs from previous surveys in several important ways. The most prominent is its use of information technology: PIAAC includes a domain — PS-TRE — that has not been measured in previous surveys; and PIAAC has largely been administered using computers, whereas other surveys have been completed entirely on paper.
PIAAC also takes a different approach to literacy. In recognition of the enormous increase in the use of digital technology over the past 10 years, it includes texts of multiple types — prose, document, digital, and mixed-format. This is different from earlier surveys, which used only paper-based texts in prose and document format. PIAAC carries this different approach into the way it presents results: it reports literacy on a single scale, whereas the earlier surveys reported literacy on two separate scales (prose literacy and document literacy).
Finally, PIAAC assesses skills with a finer level of detail than previous surveys did. New elements introduced in PIAAC permitted the development of the “below Level 1” category, a more detailed assessment of reading ability for individuals at low levels of literacy, and a richer source of data for constructing the numeracy scale.
As a result of all these differences, caution should be exercised when comparing PIAAC with previous surveys. For example, the use of a single scale for literacy in PIAAC meant that results from the previous OECD survey [the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), completed in 2003] had to be re-scaled before the two could be compared. Without that re-scaling, the IALSS results cannot be compared with those for PIAAC, since the scales used in the two surveys are not the same.
12. What are the limitations/caveats when comparing results from Canada with those from other countries?
The PIAAC survey was standardized to ensure that its content and implementation were the same across all participating countries. While this allows results to be compared, they can only be fully understood by bearing in mind the context.
No two countries in PIAAC are identical. From age structure, to educational attainment, to immigration levels, to cultural background, the populations that were measured all display very different characteristics. Given that these characteristics can have a significant impact on skill levels, making direct comparisons of one country with another by simply looking at their average results is problematic.
Fortunately, PIAAC provides much more than average skill outcomes for entire populations. It also provides outcomes for different categories within those populations, such as age cohorts, educational attainment, and occupational status. This allows for much better comparisons between national populations, since it controls for the socio-demographic differences between them.
In short, PIAAC allows us to make comparisons between countries — but it is essential to understand what exactly is being compared.
13. What are the limitations/caveats when comparing results between provinces and territories?
The PIAAC survey was standardized to ensure that its content and implementation were the same across all jurisdictions. While this allows results to be compared, they can only be fully understood by bearing in mind the context.
No two provinces or territories in Canada are identical. From age structure, to educational attainment, to immigration levels, to cultural background, the populations that were measured all display very different characteristics. In addition, Canada has a very complex linguistic profile: not only does the country have two official languages, but there are substantial proportions of the population who have neither English nor French as a mother tongue. Given that all these characteristics can have a significant impact on skill levels, making direct comparisons of one jurisdiction with another by simply looking at their average results is problematic.
Fortunately, PIAAC provides much more than average skill outcomes for entire populations. It also provides outcomes for different categories within those populations, such as age cohorts, educational attainment, and occupational status. This allows for much better comparisons between populations, since it controls for the socio-demographic differences between them.
In short, PIAAC allows us to make comparisons across Canada — but it is essential to understand what exactly is being compared.