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

Low educational attainment and high school dropout rates are factors that affect the skills level of people with learning disabilities. According to the OECD Technical Report, PIAAC uses the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) for each level of educational attainment, and enables researchers to convert each of those levels to total years of schooling for the U.S. and other countries. This conversion gives us an opportunity to compare years of schooling between ethnic groups with learning disabilities. We analyzed the PIAAC information about “highest level of education obtained imputed into years of education,” and found that, on average, people with learning disabilities had fewer years of formal education. Our hypothesis is that on average people with learning disabilities did not complete K-12 education and left school one to three years earlier than their peers without learning disabilities.

Years of education

We first compared the average number of years of education between Blacks, Hispanics and Whites with learning disabilities, and people without learning disabilities. Figure 1 shows that among the household population, the average years of schooling of Blacks with learning disabilities was approximately 10 years, whereas for their White peers, it is 12 years. The two-year gap is measurably significant.

In the prison population, the average years of schooling was higher than in the household population. One explanation for this fact is that many inmates, during the time of incarceration, participated in prison-based programs and worked on their high school obtaining GED or other postsecondary certificate/degree. It should be noted that the average years of schooling of Black inmates with learning disabilities was still the lowest among the incarcerated population.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Number of years spent on highest level of education

Educational attainment

A large proportion of people with learning disabilities had low (less than high school diploma) and medium (high school diploma/some college without degree) education levels, and only a few had a high level of education (college degree). In the household population, the percentage of a medium education level is higher among Whites (56%) and Hispanics (63%) with learning disabilities than among Blacks with learning disabilities (45%). In the incarcerated population, the percentage of low education level is much higher among Hispanics (56%) and Blacks (60%) with learning disabilities than among Whites with learning disabilities (37%).

It should be noted that a higher percentage of Blacks with learning disabilities had a low level of education. Figure 2 shows that 46 out of 100 Blacks with learning disabilities in the household population and 60 out of 100 Black inmates with learning disabilities had less than high school diploma.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Educational attainments by ethnicity in the two populations

Age when finishing highest level of education

Overall, more than half of the people with learning disabilities finished their highest level of education before they reached age 20. Blacks with learning disabilities had higher percentage of individuals leaving education at age 15 or younger, than Whites and Hispanics with learning disabilities. As shown in Figure 3, in the household population, two thirds of Black individuals with learning disabilities finished their highest level of education at ages younger than 20 years old (47% finished at ages 16-19 and 17% finished at age 15 or younger). In prison, 48% of Black inmates with learning disabilities finished their highest education at ages 16-19, and 23% at age 15 or younger.

Figure 3(1-2)

Figure 3: At what age people with learning disabilities finished their highest level of education: Percentage among each racial group in the household and prison populations

What do we learn from our findings?

People with learning disabilities may have a disadvantage in literacy/numeracy skills, compared with people without learning disabilities. PIAAC tells us that low educational attainment by people with learning disabilities is associated with low skills level. An issue we identified in our study is that a substantial percentage of Blacks with learning disabilities finished their highest level of education at age 15 or younger. Although people with learning disabilities leave K-12 education before completion for various reasons, school dropout rate within this population is certainly a concern for school leaders. In the long run, reaching a higher educational attainment should be a goal for every student and helping students reach that goal should be a mission for education authorities, because educational attainment not only nurtures people’s social outcomes but also promotes active participation in society and stability (Vera-Toscano, Rodrigues, & Costa, 2017).