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“Education fails” stories are an irresistible hot-button for even moderate media, let alone those on the right wing. So it is that when the Industry Skills Councils – an umbrella group of skills research and lobby organisations – announced that half Australia’s working-age adults have inadequate literacy or numeracy skills, the story caught like wildfire.

The Australian quotes from the report, saying that “up to eight million Australian workers don’t have the reading, writing or numeracy skills to undertake training for trade or professional jobs”. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, students applying for apprenticeships struggle if they’re asked to complete a test without a calculator.

So: half of us can’t read or write well enough (according to a standard that’s not open to scrutiny until after the report is released), incoming tradies can’t work without a calculator, and the country’s in crisis.

Let’s start with the main “hard number” that was handed out to the media in the absence of the report – “up to eight million”.

Australia’s entire working-age population is roughly 15 million, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I arrive at this figure quite simply: Table 9 of the ABS data series 3101 (Australian Demographic Statistics) gives the population snapshot at each age, year-by-year, for June 2010. So the “working-age population” is simply a sum of all persons aged 15 to 64.

Eight million Australians with “inadequate” skills is about 53 percent of the working-age population – or, presuming a normal distribution curve of literacy or numeracy, it’s roughly what’s below the median.

While the report isn’t yet available, a draft of part of the report (published here) gives another snippet: “13 percent [of working age Australians] are in the lowest literacy category”. (Note: the final report became available as I was writing this.)

Again, this is merely a statement of an unexceptional statistical prediction. All it tells us is that whoever made this measurement sliced the distribution into eight bands and rounded the lowest band to 13 percent instead of 12.5 percent.

Neither of these numbers tells us anything about the absolute level of achievement. They’re just used to lend urgency or immediacy to the real findings of the report, which are far less alarming than the “breakouts”.

Hyping data for fun and headlines

Let’s look at a juxtaposition from the draft I’m looking at. The breakout says:

“More than 7 million Australian adults are likely to experience difficulty with reading skills”.

The main text puts more meat on this:

“This does not mean that this number of adults cannot read at all. It means that the reading tasks required in personal or work environments are sometimes beyond the skill level of 46 percent of Australian adults” (emphasis added).

By blending “personal and work” environments, and by adding the word “sometimes”, the researchers get to inflate the number of people whose skills are supposedly inadequate, creating the journalists’ conceit that up to eight million Australians can’t read, write, or calculate well enough for professional training. But when it’s dealing with definitions, the report is far less absolute.

Here’s what the “sometimes” lacking skills equates to:

“People experience difficulties, or make mistakes, reading and following instructions, communicating reliably via email, or interpreting graphs and charts.”

The same blurring of boundaries occurs with numeracy: the “eight million” who have trouble with numbers “sometimes make mistakes”.

Since the ISC report contains no information about absolute levels of education in Australia, I’ll point instead to the OECD PISA data. This indicates that other countries are catching up with Australia, but that we still perform well:

Reading assessments – Australian average score 515 points, OECD average 493 points; Mathematics – Australian average score 514 points, OECD average 496 points.

Our absolute position has slipped since 2000. According to Education Review, these scores are below previous scores Australia has achieved in the PISA tests, and other countries have improved their performance.

What’s it really mean?

Unlike the sucker-bait handed out to the press, the report makes quite clear what is going on: work is changing. This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has watched manufacturing move to Asia, taking the lower-skilled manufacturing jobs with it.

The report is quite clear about this:

“The assessment of what [adequate numeracy and literacy] meant 20 years ago will be very different to what is required today. A move away from low-skilled work to greater knowledge-based work has increased the need for workers with good LLN skills.”

Such a conclusion is completely unexceptional.

On the other hand, the media’s interpretation that this report shows Australians are becoming less educated than we have been in the past demonstrates one thing and one thing alone: journalists are a very disadvantaged group when it comes to interpreting statistics. ®

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