US 4th-graders earn a B+ in reading

American fourth-graders are good, not great, readers. But they clearly know their way around the Internet. At least that’s one of the lessons to take away from the latest international assessment of nine-year-olds’ reading ability.

PIRLs

Earlier this week, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) released the results of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Our fourth-graders scored 16th out of the 61 participating countries and jurisdictions, although just 12 countries outscored us by statistically significant margins. The five top performers in descending order were Russia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland and Finland.

Although we can’t claim number one status, our young students once again show they are more competitive internationally than either their 15-year-old siblings or their parents and grandparents, who barely register at the international average on tests of literacy. (As though the nation needed more evidence that we Baby Boomers need to get over ourselves.)

Yet the report was not without troubling signs. For one, the overall average was not significantly different from 2001, and we actually saw a decline from 2011 even while scores increased in ten countries. As we often remind CPE readers, one year’s data does not make a trend. But it does bear watching, particularly since the decline in this case was most pronounced among our low scorers, producing a widening gap.

As in past administrations of PIRLS, our fourth-graders performance is largely driven by their proficiency with reading literature. Only six countries outperformed the U.S. when reading for “literary experience.” In comparison, 14 did better than we did when asked to “acquire and use information.” The relatively weak performance in informational reading extends through adulthood in the U.S. — an issue CPE addressed three years ago in our report Beyond Fiction, which highlighted the importance of including non-fiction texts in the school curriculum.

Interestingly enough, however, our fourth-graders are really good at locating and using information online. For the first time in 2016, PIRLS assessed students’ ability to navigate the internet for information. IEA developed discrete web pages that students accessed through computer, and navigated through them to answer short multiple-choice or open-ended questions. (You can test-drive ePIRLS sample items here.) Out of the 16 participating education systems, only three — Singapore, Norway and Ireland — outperformed the U.S.

This begs the question: Why can our students read for information online, but aren’t as proficient in print? Hopefully, ePIRLS will prompt researchers to take a deeper look into this area. And while they’re at it, we need to know more about why U.S. schools seem to be able teach kids to read, interpret and analyze literature, but the skills aren’t transferring to their approach to printed informational texts. There’s an urgency to finding answers. Our nation has entered an era when consumers of information must increasingly rely on their own judgment and skills in order to discern fact from fiction. We need to figure out how to make sure our next generation is up to it.

CPE will soon be releasing a report that examines differences in the perceptions teachers in the U.S. have about their profession compared to their peers in high-performing Finland. The report, written by our research analyst Annie Hemphill, doesn’t specifically address reading instruction. But it does highlight some issues important to preparing and retaining good teachers who, after all, are a key ingredient in students’ academic development. So keep watching this space.