America Idles on International Reading Test

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 30, 2007 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 5 min read
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Corrected: An earlier verison of this story misspelled Gerry Shiel’s name.

Reforms aimed at improving reading achievement seem to have propelled Russia, Hong Kong, and Singapore from middle to top rankings on an international assessment of literacy skills, even as U.S. performance stood still, according to results released last week.

American 4th graders failed to show progress, despite spending more time on reading lessons than their peers internationally. 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 the assessment 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 test, administered by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, based in Amsterdam, was first given in 2001. 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.

That lack of headway left some American officials disappointed, particularly in light of slight improvements in 4th grade reading achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress released earlier this year. (“NAEP Gains: Experts Mull Significance,” Oct. 3, 2007.)

“Clearly, as the world becomes flatter, it’s becoming more competitive,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a statement. “We need to do better than simply keep pace.”

Global Literacy

The combined informational and literary reading-comprehension score shows the range in achievement among 4th graders around the world.

Average is higher than the U.S. average:
Russia 565
Hong Kong 564
Alberta, Canada 560
British Columbia, Canada 558
Singapore 558
Luxembourg 557
Ontario, Canada 555
Hungary 551
Italy 551
Average is not measurably different from the U.S. average:
Sweden 549
Germany 548
Belgium (Flemish) 547
Bulgaria 547
Netherlands 547
Denmark 546
Nova Scotia, Canada 542
Latvia 541
England 539
Austria 538
Lithuania 537
Average is lower than the U.S. average:
Chinese Taipei 535
Quebec, Canada 533
New Zealand 532
Slovak Republic 531
Scotland 527
France 522
Slovenia 522
Poland 519
Spain 513
Israel 512
Iceland 511
Belgium (French) 500
Moldova 500
Norway 498
Romania 489
Georgia 471
Macedonia 442
Trinidad and Tobago 436
Iran 421
Indonesia 405
Qatar 353
Kuwait 330
Morocco 323
South Africa 302
PIRLS scale average 500

SOURCE: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement

More than 95 percent of the American students scored at least 400 points on the test, meeting the “low” international benchmark, meaning they could recount details of literary and informational passages. Nearly half met the “high” benchmark, which requires that they demonstrate understanding of abstract messages, make inferences, and explain ideas in the passages. Twelve percent of American 4th graders were deemed “advanced” after interpreting complex information and character traits.

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 African-American students and 518 for Hispanic children.

Russia on 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. Even so, some experts were stunned by Russia’s dominance.

“I’m surprised that Russia finished on top … especially right next to Hong Kong and Singapore,” which tend to do well on international tests, said Gerry Shiel, a research fellow at St. Patrick’s College in Dublin, Ireland, and a member of a task force on international assessment for the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association.

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. Hong Kong gained 36 points, and Singapore improved by 30 points since then.

Mr. Shiel said he was also surprised at the relatively lower rankings of countries like Norway and the Netherlands, which are viewed as having strong education systems. The Netherlands, which ranked second in the world in the 2001 test, averaged 547 points, a 7-point decline that the report attributes to a slide in achievement among girls in that country. Norway’s score held steady at 499 points, but fell below the international average.

Girls in nearly every country outperformed boys. The gap was widest in Kuwait, where girls scored an average 67 points more than boys. The average score for American girls was 10 points better than boys.

Lessons to Be Learned

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 of students 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 assessment co-director. 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 [participating 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.”

There are likely lessons for schools in this country as well, said Jim Hull, the education policy analyst for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

The improvement seen in some countries “lets us go back to what these international reports and comparisons are supposed to do: help us find out what exactly countries are doing that made these gains possible,” he said. “Hopefully, we can learn from these countries.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as America Idles on International Reading Test


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