What does PIAAC tell us about skills gap among people with learning disabilities?

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice reported, in 2001, that within the juvenile justice population 70% suffer from learning disabilities and 33% are reading below the 4th grade level. Almost two decades after that report, the situation has not substantially improved, and the school-to-prison pipeline has not been stopped. The 2012/14 PIAAC survey shows that the percentage of inmates who reported being diagnosed with learning disabilities in the incarcerated population is almost four times higher than within the household population.

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Figure 1: Percentage of people with learning disabilities by ethnicity in the household and prison populations respectively

Using PIAAC data, we investigated how far people from different ethnicities with learning disabilities fell behind their peers in literacy and numeracy levels, and what education gap existed between minority people with learning disabilities and their White peers. As shown in Figure 1, among the individuals with learning disabilities in the household population, the majority were White (70%), followed by Black (14%). In contrast, in the incarcerated population, approximately two thirds of the people who reported being diagnosed with learning disabilities were minorities, including 30% Black and 20% Hispanic. This finding seems to support previous studies that show that Black and Hispanic individuals with learning disabilities are more likely to be at risk within the school-to-prison pipeline. However, more research is needed for the education community to understand where and how the education gap exists among people with learning disabilities.

Skills gap

PIAAC assesses the proficiency of adults from age 16 onwards (both the household and prison populations in the U.S.) in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. According to PIAAC, these skills are “key information-processing competencies” that adults need in many social contexts and work situations. The skills also support every adult to fully integrate and participate in the labor market, education and training, and social and civic life.

As shown in Table 1, Blacks with learning disabilities, both in the household and prison populations, perform one level lower than their White peers in literacy and numeracy. On average, Blacks with learning disabilities have “Level 1” proficiency in literacy and numeracy. According to the interpretation of PIAAC, “Level 1” in literacy means recognizing basic vocabulary, determining the meaning of simple sentences, and reading short texts, and “Level 1” in numeracy, carrying out basic mathematical problems, such as counting, sorting, and performing basic arithmetic operations.

Tab 1


What does this finding suggest?

We must admit that our study has limitations in terms of examining equity issues in education. Due to a shortage of detailed information, the population we studied was a collective group “people with learning disabilities,” which ignored the important characteristics of individuals with different levels or types of learning disabilities. However, Blacks with learning disabilities are far behind in literacy and numeracy skills; this fact drives us to investigate whether there is any education gap among people with learning disabilities. In the next blog, we will disclose findings about at what age people with learning disabilities left formal education.