It may not be news that the United States has fallen behind in education, consistently posting lower test scores and worse college graduation rates than many of our international peers. But according to a study released last week, America’s “skills gap” isn’t just in the classroom.

Based on tests and surveys administered to thousands of people aged 16-25 in 23 countries, the OECD Skills Outlook 2013 shows U.S. adults are mostly average or below average in categories such as literacy and numeracy. Among the twenty largest OECD countries (not including Russia, Cyprus, or sub-national entities such as Flanders), the United States has the seventh-lowest mean score in literacy, and the third-lowest in numeracy.

Part of the reason for America’s poor performance overall is an unusual level of polarization between the most and least educated, with more people in both the highest proficiency levels and in the lowest.

Nothing epitomizes this inequality more clearly than America’s dismal showing in the “problem solving in technology-rich environments” category. The same country that is home to Silicon Valley, Apple, Google and the world’s most vibrant tech start-up scene is also among the least proficient in technological skills overall. Even more shocking is the fact that American youth scored lower than youth in any other country in technological problem-solving. That disconnect suggests a troubling digital divide between educated elites and everyone else.

Unfortunately, the U.S. skills gap appears to be getting worse, not better. While Americans aged 55-65 maintained their overall educational and skills advantage over other nations, those in the 45-54 age group were only average. Younger Americans again fared worse, consistently scoring in the bottom half.

Some experts have suggested America’s large immigrant population helps explain the skills gap. It’s true that foreign-born adults in the United States perform worse on average than the native-born. But even native-born Americans scored below-average compared to their peers in other advanced nations.

This is a problem that money alone cannot solve: The United States already spends more on education per capita than most other countries in the OECD. Clearly something needs to change. America needs to take a long look in the mirror, and then start having a serious conversation about our national priorities.

(The Century Foundation has a couple ideas of our own, which you can read about here and here.)

Photo credit: Flickr, Creative Commons