Teenagers with low reading levels, who went on to further education, don’t find it any harder to get a job at the age of 25, research shows.
At age 25, young Australians whose reading proficiency at age 15 was ranked low in the international literacy and numeracy test were employed at the same rates as those with higher levels of achievement.
For both the low (below level 3) and medium (level 3 and 4) reading proficiency groups, 58% were employed full-time, with a further 13-14% employed part-time.
Low proficiency levels in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests are deemed to be those at a level insufficient for students to perform the moderate reading tasks that are needed to meet real-life challenges and are below minimum Australian standards.
Around one-third of Australian 15 year olds had low reading proficiency levels, with just over one half were in the medium proficiency group.
The study also found that low school achievers work in jobs that have similar expected lifetime earnings as the medium reading proficiency group.
The results are particularly surprising because it is well known from other research that poor reading skills in adulthood are associated with poorer employment prospects and work in low-paid jobs.
It seems that not every teenager with low reading proficiency necessarily becomes an adult with poor reading skills.
Investment in VET is the key
These results can be explained by high rates of participation in, and good outcomes from, Vocational Education and Training (VET) by those with low reading proficiency.
Around 58% undertook VET study, 15% higher education study and 14% both.
In contrast, those from the medium group focused more on higher education — 42% higher education, 36% VET and 15% both.
Those from the low proficiency group compensate for studying below bachelor-level VET qualifications by choosing courses that have good labour market prospects.
Compared to the medium group which did not complete a university degree, the low group chose initial VET courses that had 6% higher graduate earnings.
It is thought that those with low reading proficiency at age 15 explore VET options from an early age.
Given the large number of VET courses available – and the fact that most are designed to prepare students for specific occupations – early career exploration may mean the low proficiency group is better prepared to make course choices.
Australia is one of only a handful of countries with the capacity to track outcomes of PISA participants through its Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth (LSAY).
In comparing outcomes, we also controlled for a range of differences between the student groups that may confound the analysis, such as family socioeconomic and demographic background and grade level at age 15.
The results rely on the survey respondents at age 25 being representative of those first surveyed at age 15, which can be problematic if attrition rates are high, as they are here at around 75%.
In the paper, we report a number of supplementary analyses that indicate that the results are unlikely to be affected by non-random attrition. The results also do not appear to reflect particularly high levels of motivation or ambition among the low skill group members who remain in the survey.
Implications for schools and policy
Further education and training plays a role in up-grading the skills of individuals.
A study of a Canadian PISA cohort reported that when respondents were re-tested at age 24, the reading levels among those who had undertaken post-school studies had increased from their age 15 levels.
The findings in our research underlines the role that VET plays in providing opportunities for low-achieving school students to engage further in study and participate fully in a modern economy.
It also demonstrates the importance of course choice in shaping outcomes.
For schools and education departments, the message is to not only ensure access to VET, but also to support young people in making good course choices. Early career counselling is a step in this direction.
We stress that these results do not mean that academic achievement is unimportant. On the contrary, we find more marked differences in labour market outcomes at 25 between those with high reading proficiency (levels 5 and above), suggesting substantial returns to achievement among the most skilled.