Nan Austin

On Campus: International test of teenage financial literacy shows room for improvement

Results of a first-ever international test of 15-year-olds’ financial savvy released Wednesday shows plenty of room for improvement in U.S. schools.

A little more than half of the American teens taking the test had bank accounts, so being fiscally clueless was a problem already. But a generation that doesn’t understand the cost of credit, the risk in stocks and the consequences of tax policies has wider implications for all of us.

Michael Davidson, OECD head of schools, laid out the research for journalists in an early-peek webinar held Tuesday by the Education Writers Association. OECD stands for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The odd spelling of organization is old Oxford English.

Money smarts have always mattered, but a changing world makes these skills utterly essential for today’s youths, Davidson said.

He listed the immediacy of access at younger ages to bank accounts, credit and debit cards, and more complicated spending decisions about college. Lifelong concerns of less job security, paired with shrinking welfare systems and safety nets, make saving imperative. But saving also carries risk as financial markets become more complex.

Consider the sobering statistic that 39 percent of U.S. adults have no savings, according to a 2013 survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

The financial literacy test was part of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA, given every three years to check academic skills.

Some 29,000 students took the two-hour test. Most were likely sophomores that fall, and graduates now.

Let’s hope the nearly 1 in 5 U.S. students (18 percent) who were at the most basic level have wised up since then. Basic level questions asked students to identify an invoice as a bill, tell the difference between wants and needs, and make simple decisions on everyday spending.

Fewer than 1 in 10 students (9.4 percent) scored in the top level. These students could plan ahead to solve financial problems and recognized implicit costs not spelled out in contracts.

The study found financial literacy to be separate from math skills, though related, and, similar to all U.S. academic scores, strongly tied to income levels. Students who persevered at tasks, believing they could figure it out, usually did. Kids with bank accounts and jobs did better than those without.

Overall, teens in the United States came in on the low side of average for the 18 countries that chose to take the test, with 29 percent doing well or on their way, and 44 percent at a level we would hate to see voting on taxes and school bonds.

The U.S. scored a little lower than Latvia and Poland, and higher than Russia, France and Israel. Two countries stood far apart from the pack: Colombia, significantly lower than the rest, and China far higher.

Only 2 percent of students in Shanghai, China, scored in the lowest level and 43 percent placed in the top tier. To put this in perspective, China’s lowest-achieving students scored at roughly where our average kids placed. We had nine times as many low scorers.

What is China doing that we aren’t? There is no simple math for that, Davidson said, but early support for struggling students is part of the equation.

While we may not be able to scale that mountain before the next PISA test in 2015, helping a single class or a single teen is a start. California has free programs on financial literacy for all grades at