U.S. 4th Graders Are Among Top 10 in Reading

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 16, 2003 4 min read
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Fourth graders in the United States show above-average reading skills compared with their peers around the globe. Still, American students have a long way to go toward being the best readers in the world and in reducing large gaps in achievement between racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, suggests a study released last week.

The report, “International Comparisons in 4th Grade Reading Literacy,” is available online from the National Center for Education Statistics. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

U.S. students scored an average 542 on a 1,000-point scale, ranking them ninth among 35 countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS. Statistically, however, the scores of children in just three countries— Sweden, the Netherlands, and England—were considered significantly higher than those of American pupils.

“The results from this study indicate that U.S. 4th graders performed well on many reading tasks, but there is room for improvement,” Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, said in a statement.

“In the United States,” he said, “there are significant gaps in reading-literacy achievement between racial/ethnic groups, between students in high-poverty schools and other public schools, and also between girls and boys.”

Stagnant Achievement

For assessment purposes, the study defined reading literacy as “the ability to understand and use those written-language forms required by society and/or valued by the individual.”

The test gauged how well young readers could understand and interpret fiction and a variety of informational texts. On literary-reading tasks, American students ranked among the top performers, with only Swedish youngsters earning a significantly higher score.

Twelve nations outscored the United States in understanding informational texts, but the results from just five—Sweden, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Latvia, and England—were considered to be significantly better.

Some 150,000 students in the equivalent of the 4th grade took part in the assessment, given in 2001. The International Study Center at Boston College conducted the study in conjunction with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, or IEA, based in the Netherlands. The National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the Education Department, sponsored the test in the United States.

Reading Results
The following shows the overall average performance of 4th graders in comprehension of literary and information texts, on a 1,000-point scale.

Scale Score

Sweden 561
Netherlands 554
England 553
Bulgaria 550
Latvia 545
Canada 544
Lithuania 543
Hungary 543
United States 542
Italy 541
Germany 539
Czech Republic 537
New Zealand 529
Scotland 528
Singapore 528
Russian Federation 528
Hong Kong 528
France 525
Greece 524
Slovak Republic 518
Iceland 512
Romania 512
Israel 509
Slovenia 502
Norway 499
Cyprus 494
Moldova 492
Turkey 449
Macedonia 442
Colombia 422
Argentina 420
Iran 414
Kuwait 396
Morocco 350
Belize 327
International Average 500

A similar study was conducted a decade ago, but the differences in the test make it impossible to compare the results. A small group of students, however, was asked to retake the 1991 version. Their scores were about the same as those from the original test, when the United States ranked fifth out of 31 participating countries, but was significantly outperformed by just one: Finland. Other tests, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have also shown flat achievement during that time.

“It’s an echo of all the past reports that have said for the last 30 years that we’re stuck [at the same performance levels], and poor kids are stuck at the bottom,” said Timothy Shanahan, the director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “But we still have more than our fair share of the best schools and kids in terms of reading achievement.”

Substantial Gaps

Some 89 percent of U.S. students who took the test demonstrated basic literacy, while 19 percent met the highest benchmarks.

The best American readers scored an average 663 points. Those students showed a deep understanding of the texts they read and could apply the information in them to “real world” situations. The bottom U.S. performers scored an average 389 points, meaning they could retrieve specific details from the texts, but could not necessarily interpret or integrate the information.

The 274-point average difference between the highest and lowest performers represented an achievement gap that exceeded that of 17 other nations. Ten other countries, including England, New Zealand, and Singapore, had greater variations in the performance of the best and worst readers.

Black students scored lowest, on average, with 502 points, compared with 565 points for white students, 517 points for Hispanic students, and 551 for Asian-Americans. Fourth graders from schools with the highest percentages of students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches scored more than 100 points lower, on average, than their peers at schools with the smallest proportions of students qualifying for the federal program.

Along with its other findings, the study gauged school characteristics and reading behaviors among the participants. Among all the nations, reading was the dominant subject of the primary school curriculum, the study found. In the United States, pupils receive as much as nine hours a week of reading instruction, significantly more time than in all but six other nations.

The children who performed best on the assessment, the study concludes, were more likely to have read books, told stories, sung songs, and engaged in other literacy activities prior to attending school.

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