Reading & Literacy

U.S. 4th Graders Surprise on New Exam of Online Reading

By Benjamin Herold — April 24, 2018 5 min read
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New York

U.S. 4th graders performed surprisingly well on a new international test of online reading ability, outperforming their peers in 10 of the 15 other educational systems that participated.

“We were actually elated,” said Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner for assessment at the National Center for Education Statistics, during a discussion of the results at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, held here this month.

“I think it’s very clear that our students are more savvy than many of us have given them credit for,” Carr said.

The findings come from the first administration of ePIRLS, a new version of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. The new assessment of online reading ability was taken in 2016 by 85,000 4th graders around the world, including 4,100 students in 153 U.S. public and private schools.

The ePIRLS exam asks students to navigate a “simulated internet environment"—including web pages, tabs, and hyperlinks directing them to a mix of text, photos, charts, and interactive animations—in order to find and understand relevant information.

The new assessment comes amid much hand-wringing about students’ ability to effectively read on the internet, where concerns about everything from digital distractions to “fake news” are prevalent.

Outside experts expressed cautious optimism about the results.

But they also emphasized the exam’s limitations, as well as disparities in achievements among different groups of students.

“ePIRLS provides an important early attempt to evaluate online reading of informational text for learning,” said Donald Leu, an education professor and the director of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut.

“It does not fully represent online reading, however.”

A Familiar Achievement Gap

The ePIRLS is a new supplement to a broader international assessment of 4th graders’ reading literacy.

The PIRLS assessment aims to gauge how students are making the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” The exam has been administered every five years since 2001.

Overall, the results of that exam suggest that the general reading ability of U.S. 4th graders has declined slightly, even as other coun tries have improved.

The new ePIRLS exam is not intended to use computers to measure the same reading skills as the traditional assessment. Instead, it reflects the belief among literacy experts that reading online requires its own unique set of skills.

Rather than identify the theme of a literary passage, for example, the ePIRLS asks students to integrate information from across a mix of web pages and interactive online elements.

Problems on the test are structured as class projects. Students interact with an avatar who guides them through a series of tasks—for example, searching curated web pages for information about Mars, then answering questions about NASA’s Rover explorer by navigating an interactive animation.

Overall, the average score for U.S. 4th graders on the exam was 557 out of 1,000. About 18 percent of those students scored “advanced” (625 or better) on the exam, and 38 percent scored “high.”

Familiar achievement gaps also showed up in the U.S. ePIRLS results.

On average, girls scored higher than boys. Asian and white students scored higher than their black and Hispanic peers. And students in lower-poverty schools scored better than students in higher-poverty schools.

The top performing international school systems on the ePIRLS exam were Singapore, Ireland, and Norway.

Test has Limitations

Researchers also found that 4th graders seemed to enjoy taking the new test.

“Students seem to be more engaged interacting with the [ePIRLS] assessment” than with traditional paper-and-pencil exams, said Carr of NCES.

But while there was some cause for enthusiasm, outside experts remained skeptical.

Leu of the University of Connecticut said the performance of U.S. students likely does not demonstrate “a level of performance adequate to be fully successful in learning during online inquiry.”

Among the limitations of the ePIRLS exam is that the online texts students are asked to read are pre-selected for them and presented at an age-appropriate reading level, effectively filtering out much of the messiness and complexity of the actual internet.

In addition, Leu said, students are not asked to use a search engine to locate useful online information, nor are they asked to evaluate the reliability of material that is available on the open internet.

He described such skills as essential to real-life online reading.

Leu also noted that previous studies have shown that students of all ages struggle with important skills not measured by ePIRLS, including evaluating the reliability and credibility of online information—a growing concern in the age of misinformation, “fake news,” and internet hoaxes and conspiracy theories.

Jill Castek, an associate professor of teaching, learning, and sociocultural studies at the University of Arizona, said the achievement gaps in ePIRLS results are a cause for concern, too.

Of particular note, Castek said, is that students who reported the greatest access to digital devices in their homes scored significantly higher on the exam than those with lesser access.

The ways students reported using computers in school also seems to matter: Using devices to prepare reports was associated with higher achievement, while using devices to read information on the internet was not.

“I worry that looking only at [the high-level] results makes it seem like we’re doing more in school to support good online reading than we really are,” Castek said.

“And those things we are doing well, we’re not doing well with all students.”

Both PIRLS and ePIRLS are conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, based in the Netherlands. The next administration is scheduled for 2021.

Beginning in 2019, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, commonly referred to as the “nation’s report card,” will begin incorporating some ePIRLS-style tasks intended to measure students’ online-reading skills.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2018 edition of Education Week as U.S. Students Surprise on New Exam of Online Reading


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