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U.S. Idles on International Reading Test

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Educational reforms aimed at improving reading achievement appear to be having an impact in Russia, Hong Kong, and Singapore, which rose from the middle of the pack to top rankings over the past five years on an international assessment of literacy skills, according to results released today.

American 4th graders, meanwhile, did not show progress, despite spending more time on reading lessons than their peers in most other countries. Still, they outscored children in 22 of 39 other nations that took part in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS.

“The United States had a respectable showing in that they were outperformed only by seven countries, and the trend shows some stability in results,” said Ina V.S. Mullis, who co-directs PIRLS with Michael O. Martin at Boston College.

The 2006 PIRLS gauged literary and informational reading-comprehension skills of more than 215,000 4th graders around the world. The United States’ average combined score for literary and informational reading was 540 on a 1,000-point scale, statistically the same as in 2001.

More than 95 percent of the American students scored at least 400 points on the test, meeting the “low” international benchmark, while nearly half met the “high” benchmark, and 12 percent were deemed “advanced.”

As with national assessments in the United States, American students in schools with large proportions of disadvantaged students scored lower than their peers in better-off schools. American 4th graders attending schools with no low-income students scored nearly 100 points higher than those in schools in which all students are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. The achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white peers in the United States also persisted. White 4th graders scored an average 560 points, compared with 503 for black students and 518 for Hispanic children.

Education Week received an embargoed copy of the study prior to its release, but agreed not to share results for independent comments until after they are made public.

Rising to the Top

Russia was the top scorer with 565 points, a 37-point gain over its 2001 results, followed closely by Hong Kong; the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario; Singapore; Luxembourg; Hungary; Italy; and Sweden. The United States scored on par with 12 other countries and jurisdictions, including Germany, Flemish-speaking Belgium, Bulgaria, Netherlands, Denmark, Canada’s Nova Scotia and Quebec provinces, Latvia, England, Austria, Lithuania, and Taipei. France, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, and Spain were among those countries that scored below the United States.

Since 2001, Russia has added a year to its primary school program, allowing the enrollment of 6-year-olds, a year younger than what had been the traditional school age. Education officials in Singapore and Hong Kong revamped their reading curricula and instructional methods several years ago, after what they perceived as their countries’ mediocre performance on the 2001 test, according to Ms. Mullis.

Schools participating in the study—about 150 for each country—as well as parents of test-takers completed lengthy questionnaires about instruction, classroom characteristics, and students’ exposure to reading materials. U.S. schools, for example, reported that nearly 70 percent of 4th graders received, on average, more than six hours of reading instruction per week, compared with just 25 percent internationally. Among the other nations, 44 percent of 4th graders spent less than three hours in reading classes each week, while just 10 percent of U.S. students did so. The study also includes an encyclopedia of reading standards and instructional practices for each country, allowing further study of factors that could lead to higher reading achievement, according to Mr. Martin. The results, he said, show that improvement efforts can pay off.

“Most of all, these results show that countries can make changes and can improve their education systems, whether it be through major structural change or instructional initiatives,” Mr. Martin said. “And many of the [lower-performing nations] can get a look at what other countries are doing in terms of the curriculum, instruction, how they educate their teachers, in terms of preparation of children in preschool, even in terms of what parents can do, and how they try to bring those things to bear to bring about improvement.”

Vol. 27

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