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American millennials are literally the worst (at math)

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The Educational Testing Service analyzed the results of a recent international standardized test — the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies — and the results for American millennials are not good.

Americans age 16 to 34 scored dead last in math ability, behind Spain and Poland and far behind top performers in Asia and Europe:

PIAAC chart on math scores

(Educational Testing Service)

The blue bar represents the average scores of 16- to 34-year-olds, while the red dot is 16- to 24-year-olds. That's even worse news: these are the people who were in high school more recently. And they did worse on average.

American millennials at all education levels were below average for their peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. High school graduates fared particularly poorly, but even 16- to 34-year-olds in the US with masters' degrees lagged behind their counterparts in other countries.

How did Finland get so successful at this? There are many possible explanations.