November 14, 2001 2 min read

Literacy Checkup

Almost a decade ago, American adults scored in the middle of the pack in an international literacy study.

Next month, the United States will learn how its next generation’s reading and writing skills compare with an international mean.

On Dec. 4, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development will release results of a 32-nation assessment given last year.

The tests take an in-depth look at American 15-year-olds’ reading and writing skills and see how they stack up against those of their peers in other industrialized countries, including Germany, Japan, Korea, and the United Kingdom.

The results will measure how well test-takers respond to real-life situations, such as critiquing a memo describing a company’s flu-shot program to employees.

“We’re talking about school-based learning applied to everyday life,” said Eugene H. Owen, the director of international studies at the National Center for Education Statistics. The branch of the U.S. Department of Education sponsors the United States’ participation in the project.

Test questions also will gauge literacy skills learned outside classrooms, Mr. Owen said.

The OECD tests, called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, also measure students’ mathematics and science skills.

While the emphasis this time is on literacy, math will be the primary subject tested in 2003—the next time the assessment is given—and science in the third administration, in 2006. The program will continue in 2009, with a renewed emphasis on literacy.

Starting in December and continuing for the next two years, Mr. Owen said, the program will release a trove of data on literacy.

The first report will compare overall national averages, as well as breakdowns of skills for retrieving information, interpreting information, and elaborating on texts.

In future years, Mr. Owen added, the OECD will publish analyses comparing the literacy of boys and girls across participating countries and detailing the performance of students from different income levels.

The last major international literacy study, conducted in 1992, found that Americans 16 through 65 scored at the average in a seven-country survey, also conducted by the OECD. (“Americans Land in Middle of International Literacy Scale,” Dec. 13, 1995.) The NCES has set up a Web site that describes PISA and includes sample questions. The PISA site also will post the test results.

—David J. Hoff

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week