US Immigrants Just as Smart as Average Americans, and That’s a Double-Edged Sword

March 1, 2015 Updated: October 8, 2018

According to a new report there is good news and bad news about the skill level of immigrants, and Americans in general.

The good news is immigrants coming to the United States are just as smart as Americans on average.

The bad news is almost one-fifth of all U.S. adults would likely struggle to comprehend this article.

The news comes from a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) that explores test results on the literacy, numeracy (ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information), and problem-solving skills of some 5,000 U.S. adults participating in the 2012 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a study conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

PIAAC results show immigrants arrive in the United States with significantly lower English, math, and problem-solving skills than those of the American-born population.

Yet when looking at immigrants educated in the United States, or children of immigrants, the gap in the test results disappears. That would suggest that, in general, immigrants are just as smart as Americans, if given the education.

An average immigrant lacks five years of literacy education compared to native-born Americans.

The report notes an average immigrant lacks five years of literacy education compared to native-born Americans.

Importantly, what immigrants lack the most is English. The PIAAC test was given in English, so the results, even on numeracy or problem solving, put immigrants with poor English at a disadvantage.

Recent Immigrant Skills

The report uncovered another interesting fact. Recent immigrants arriving after 2007 scored substantially better than immigrants already in the country for 10, even 15 years.

That signifies that recent immigrants generally come with higher skills. But it also shows that long-settled immigrants have failed to get up to speed with their basic academic skills.

Also, the report shows, immigrants often polarize the skill pool, coming with either low or high skills.

More than one in four immigrant adults lacked a high school diploma. Among natives it was about one in eight. Conversely, 30 percent of immigrant adults held a college degree. Only 26 percent of native adults could say the same.

Country Comparison

The PIAAC test brought another perhaps more unsettling discovery. Altogether, Americans scored “not proficient” on the test that is designed to measure “the skills needed to function well in modern society,” as the MPI report puts it.

The United States scored 16th on the literacy test and 22nd on a numeracy test among 24 participating countries. And the scores have not improved since 2003, when Americans landed about the same literacy score. In fact, on numeracy the country’s score even dropped by over 3 percent since 2003.

Compared to other countries, the United States had about the same number of people scoring very high on the test. But contrary to higher scoring countries, it had a massive number of people scoring abysmally.

Almost one in five U.S. adults miserably failed the literacy test and almost one-third flunked the numeracy test.

“Put differently, about 36 million adults in the United States are unlikely to be able to read a newspaper article in English and compare two different points of view discussed in the article,” MPI states. “Similarly, 58 million adults are unlikely to be able to identify the year with the lowest birth rate on a graph showing birth rates over time.”

Immigrants, most notably Hispanic immigrants, contributed to this phenomenon. But since they represent only 15 percent of the adult population, they can hardly be blamed for the lack-luster results, the report notes.

Americans possess a decades-long history of mediocre scores on international tests.

Indeed, with immigrants excluded, the test scores improved a meager 2 percent.

Also worth noting, test scores don’t necessarily represent the quality of a nation. Americans possess a decades-long history of mediocre scores on international tests. That, however, hasn’t stopped them from building the worlds’ largest economy.

Still, the MPI report warns, the future economy may not be as forgiving.

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