—In England, Germany, Italy, Poland, and the United States, social background has a big impact on literacy skills, meaning the children of parents with low levels of education have lower reading skills.
America's school kids have historically scored low on international assessment tests compared to other countries, which is often blamed on the diversity of the population and the high number of immigrants. Also, achievement tests have long shown that a large chunk of the U.S. student population lacks basic reading and math skills — most pronounced among low-income and minority students.
This test could suggest students leaving high school without certain basic skills aren't obtaining them later on the job or in an education program.
The United States will have a tough time catching up because money at the state and local level, a major source of education funding, has been slashed in recent years, said Jacob Kirkegaard, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
"There is a race between man and machine here. The question here is always: Are you a worker for whom technology makes it possible to do a better job or are you a worker that the technology can replace?" he said. For those without the most basic skills, he said, the answer will be merciless and has the potential to extend into future generations. Learning is highly correlated with parents' education level.
"If you want to avoid having an underclass — a large group of people who are basically unemployable — this educational system is absolutely key," Kirkegaard said.
Dolores Perin, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said the report provides a "good basis for an argument there should be more resources to support adults with low literacy."
Adults can learn new skills at any age and there are adult-geared programs around the country, Perin said. But, she said, the challenge is ensuring the programs have quality teaching and that adults regularly attend classes.