The good news from the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study is that basic literacy is at an all-time high worldwide and a majority of countries have seen rising reading achievement in the last decade.
The bad news is that students in the United States are bucking the trend.
While U.S. 4th graders performed at an average score of 549, above the average of the 58 education systems participating in PIRLS in 2016, that score was 7 scale points lower than the last test in 2011—basically the same as they did in 2006.
PIRLS tests four different areas of literacy, and U.S. students performed significantly worse on tasks that called for them to read to find and use information than they did for “literary experience,” and they were less skilled at making “straightforward inferences” than at interpreting or evaluating texts.
“We seem to be declining as other systems improve. This is a trend we’ve seen on other assessments that the United States participates in,” said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees administration of the PIRLS in the United States. “There is a lot to be concerned about.”
The downward trend on PIRLS seems at first glance to run contrary to the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, which is considered a more difficult test and which has shown a small but significant improvement in 4th grade literacy during the same span of time.
In fact, the two tests show different sides of the same widening achievement gap among American 4th graders. To see how, you have to look at the differences in what—and who—is being assessed.
Both of the tests are nationally representative, but they focus on slightly different ranges of ability.
Taking a Closer Look
The international test, intended for countries with disparate educational systems, provides a larger range of questions for students of very low literacy levels, and Carr noted that it gives a more-nuanced picture of the least-proficient readers than the NAEP does. NAEP provides more questions at the upper end of the difficulty range than the PIRLS.
As a result, the PIRLS shows flattened achievement over time for the top-performing 20 percent of students taking the test, and declining scores for the lowest 20 percent of students, bringing the average score down. By contrast, the NAEP shows flat achievement for the lowest-performing students and rising scores for those at the top, bringing the average up.
“The pulling away at the top, and the bottom is really the story we see here,” Carr said. “The problematic area here is the bottom of the distribution. When we see a decline in PIRLS, the antenna really goes up.”
The results also show other achievement gaps of interest. While students at schools with poverty rates above 50 percent performed on average at least 20 scale points lower than wealthier schools, the schools with 10 percent to 25 percent poverty had higher average reading scores than the wealthiest schools.
Of the 58 participating education systems, the United States’ average score was higher than 30 countries’ systems and equal to 15 of them; 12 systems scored higher. And 16 percent of American 4th graders performed at the advanced level, meaning they could read and interpret complex information from different parts of the text, a higher percentage than the international average, though still significantly below six other countries such as Singapore, Ireland, and the Russian Federation, which had 20 percent of students perform at the advanced level.
But top-performing education systems such as Singapore’s had smaller gaps between the best and worst readers.
“Other education systems seem to be doing a better job of moving students through more levels of achievement to higher levels of achievement,” Carr said.
Singapore’s students led the world on both the traditional PIRLS and a new digital literacy test—known as ePIRLS—introduced this year in 14 of the countries participating in PIRLS. They and students in most participating countries (the United States included) scored higher on the ePIRLS than the standard test.
“It’s a new domain in reading,” said Dirk Hastedt, the executive director of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which administers the PIRLS. “Students have to search for information on the internet; they have to follow links, scroll up and down. This is becoming more and more a natural way for students in a lot of different countries to find information … it’s clear it requires different abilities and skills to get information from this kind of text.”
Half of all students taking ePIRLS worldwide performed at a high level, meaning that among other things, they could integrate information across several interactive web pages and evaluate how well graphics supported written content.
In 11 countries, including the United States, girls outperformed boys on the ePIRLS.
The test used a set of interactive tasks, including ones in which students were asked by a simulated teacher to gather information for a class project on Mars, searching for and navigating to the most accurate website, avoiding advertising and inaccurate information, and compiling information from several sites. While only 17 percent of students looked back at previous web pages as they worked through a task, those who did scored on average 20 points higher, enough to move from the intermediate level to high performance.
“What I found very striking was the feedback we got from students was they had a lot of fun working on these problems,” Hastedt said. “That’s quite important, because it shows that assessment isn’t necessarily something bad, but can be something engaging.”
Students who performed well on the regular PIRLS also tended to perform well on the digital literacy test, but students who used computers for classroom research had a particular advantage. The results showed that while just reading or browsing online daily did not lead to better digital literacy, students who used a computer every day to “prepare reports for schoolwork” scored on average 14 points higher than those who did not.
“It’s not computer use in general, but really focused as a form of learning,” Hastedt said.
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as U.S. 4th Graders Are Outpaced By Other Nations on Latest International Reading Test