Published: November 27, 2007

What Can We Learn From PISA Reading Scores in 2003?

The results for a major international assessment known as PISA were just released, all except for the U.S. reading scores, that is. Those scores have apparently been invalidated due to major errors in the printing of the test, according to the U.S. Department of Education and RTI International, the contractor responsible for the printing.

The Program for International Student Assessment, otherwise known as PISA, assesses the reading, mathematics and science literacy of 15-year-old students in 29 participating countries. PISA’s emphasis on the application of knowledge and the interpretation of real-world materials distinguishes it from other tests more closely aligned with school curricula and contributes to its perceived importance, according to the National Center on Education Statistics.

U.S. Scored Average on 2003 PISA Reading

In contrast, the NAEP, a domestic test known as “the nation’s report card,” and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study or TIMSS, another international comparative assessment, focus on curriculum-based content and measure students’ mastery of specific knowledge, skills, and concepts. Given that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2006 PISA results do not include U.S. scores in reading, this stat of the week looks back at how American teenagers fared against the competition in literacy the last time around.

On the 2003 reading literacy portion of PISA, the United States placed right in the middle: 15th out of 29 countries with an average score of 495 that fell remarkably close to the OECD average of 494. Teenagers in fourteen countries scored better on average than did the American teenagers. In order from highest to lowest, they came from: Finland, Korea, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Poland, and France. Another fourteen nations scored worse than the United States, among them Iceland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, and Spain.

What, if anything, can recent test results from the NAEP or from state assessments reveal about the missing 2006 PISA reading scores? And, what would those results have said about our ability to compete in the global marketplace? Such questions are difficult to answer. Recent results on the NAEP show wide variation among states in eighth grade reading, with Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, and Vermont having the largest percentage of students attaining the proficient level or above.

According to Alan Wagner, professor at State University of New York at Albany and an OECD employee for 14 years, comparing individual states to other countries may actually be more informative than the current nation-to-nation comparisons on tests like the PISA.

To see the 2003 PISA mathematics scores for the United States and 28 other participating countries, please refer to Quality Counts 2007: From Cradle to Career, a special report of Education Week and the EPE Research Center.

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