Evolution of adult numeracy from quantitative literacy to numeracy: Lessons learned from international assessments


Historically, numeracy has tended to be forgotten and overlooked in adult education, especially compared to literacy. Yet evidence exists to show that numeracy should be made a priority, and that building the foundational numeracy skills of young people and adults is vital for their well-being in work and life in the 21st century. In the past three decades, there has been an increasing awareness of the role and importance of mathematics and numeracy skills in adult life. This concerns every adult as an individual, as a member of society and as a worker, and how proficiency in these areas is critical in underpinning the skills necessary to negotiate the challenges of 21st-century life. This article describes how this growing understanding and awareness of numeracy has been enhanced through the evolution of the assessment of numeracy in international adult skills surveys. It began with the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) in the 1990s, continued with the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills (ALL) survey in the mid-2000s, and in 2011 finally led to the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The latter’s second cycle is due to start collecting data in 2021–2022 and the results are due to be published in 2023. The development and ongoing refinement of the theoretical frameworks and constructs that underpin these programmes and the assessments themselves, alongside the research based on the rich data of empirical and background information emerging from these surveys, have contributed significantly to our knowledge and understanding of numeracy in people’s lives.


Évolution de l’apprentissage du calcul, de la littératie quantitative à la numératie : les enseignements des évaluations internationales – Historiquement, l’éducation des adultes a eu tendance à oublier et à négliger l’apprentissage du calcul, par rapport à l’alphabétisation notamment. Toutefois, certains éléments prouvent qu’il faudrait faire de l’apprentissage du calcul une priorité et qu’au 21e siècle, il est crucial de développer les compétences arithmétiques de base des jeunes et des adultes pour leur bien-être professionnel et privé. Ces trois dernières décennies, on s’est de plus en plus rendu compte du rôle et de l’importance des compétences mathématiques et arithmétiques à l’âge adulte. Ceci s’applique à tous les adultes en tant qu’individus, membres de la société et travailleurs, et à la mesure dans laquelle la maîtrise de ces disciplines est essentielle comme base des compétences nécessaires pour faire face aux défis de la vie au 21e siècle. Cet article décrit comment la compréhension et la sensibilisation croissantes à l’égard de l’apprentissage du calcul se sont améliorées grâce à l’évolution de l’évaluation de la numératie dans les enquêtes internationales sur les compétences des adultes, ce qui a commencé avec l’Enquête internationale sur l’alphabétisation des adultes (EIAA) dans les années 90, avant de continuer à la moitié des années 2000 avec l’Enquête sur l’alphabétisation et l’autonomie fonctionnelle des adultes (ALL) avant de conduire enfin en 2011 au Programme pour l’évaluation internationale des compétences des adultes (PIAAC). Le second volet de ce dernier doit démarrer en 2021-2022 avec la collecte de données, la publication des résultats étant prévue pour 2023. Le développement et le perfectionnement constant des cadres et structures théoriques qui sous-tendent ces programmes et les évaluations elles-mêmes, au même titre que les recherches s’appuyant sur des informations empiriques et contextuelles émergeant de ces enquêtes, ont considérablement enrichi notre connaissance et notre compréhension de l’apprentissage du calcul dans la vie des gens.

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Figure 2


  1. 1.

    A resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1987 (UN 1987) proclaimed 1990 as International Literacy Year (ILY). The purpose of ILY was to raise public awareness of low literacy rates worldwide, especially among girls and women. In a call for action, all Member States were invited to ensure adequate nationwide preparation to contribute to the success of ILY, which “got things moving” (Ryan 1990, p. 12).

  2. 2.

    In a nutshell, the conceptual framework of the new literacy studies (NLS) recognises the existence of multiple “literacies” and literacy practices which occur in different contexts (e.g. the home, the workplace, the market, the bank, in hospital etc.) and cultural environments.

  3. 3.

    IALS is omitted here because, as discussed later in this article, it did not include the construct of “numeracy”.

  4. 4.

    PIAAC’s three main components are (1) direct assessment; (2) a module on skills use; and (3) a background questionnaire. The direct assessment in turn has four components (reading, writing, reading components and problem-solving in technology-rich environments). The module on skills use also has four components (cognitive skills, interaction and social skills, physical skills and learning skills). Finally, the background questionnaire collects data on five background factors (demographic characteristics, education and training, social and linguistic background, employment status and income, and use of ICTs and literacy and numeracy practices).

  5. 5.

    Test items in international surveys are constructed to include a stimulus (e.g. a picture) as well as a question. These stimuli are taken from real-life materials used in a range of contexts or situations in everyday life, at work etc.

  6. 6.

    Psychometrics refers to the field of mathematics that is concerned with the statistical description and analysis of data as variables and with the statistical description of the relationships between variables. IRT refers to the design, analysis and scoring of tests, and is based on the relationship between individuals’ performance on a test item and their overall levels of performance as a measure of their ability. For more details, see OECD (2016b).

  7. 7.

    To equate scores across different assessments there need to be psychometric links between the assessments – so a significant proportion of the test questions have to be common to the different assessments. In testing jargon, these questions are called “link” or “anchor” questions.

  8. 8.

    PIAAC Cycle 1 was conducted in three rounds (in 24 + 9 + 6 countries/economies) between 2011 and 2017. Cycle 2 is due to start collecting data in 2021–2022 and the results due to be published in 2023.

  9. 9.

    PIAAC uses a total of 6 levels, starting with low proficiency at “below Level 1” and ending with high proficiency at “Level 5”.

  10. 10.

    Industry 4.0 refers to the fourth industrial revolution, which connects the physical with the digital. Gig economy refers to “a labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs” (OUP n.d.).

  11. 11.

    For more information about the 6th PIAAC International Conference held 28–29 January 2020 in Rome, Italy, visit http://www.piaacconference2020.org/ [accessed 19 March 2020].

  12. 12.

    The Reading Components test set, a PIAAC add-on, assesses adults’ proficiency in print vocabulary (word meaning), sentence processing and passage comprehension (see Grotlüschen et al. 2020 in this issue).

  13. 13.

    The term “number sense” refers to a person’s general understanding of different types of numbers and arithmetic operations, and it involves an understanding to be able to make decisions and solve problems using numbers in flexible ways in different contexts.


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Tout, D. Evolution of adult numeracy from quantitative literacy to numeracy: Lessons learned from international assessments. Int Rev Educ 66, 183–209 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11159-020-09831-4

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  • mathematics assessment
  • adult numeracy
  • numeracy education
  • numeracy assessment
  • equity
  • adult literacy and numeracy
  • international adult skills assessments
  • Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)