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December 8, 2017

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.






November 6, 2013

The kids are all right-er

Recently, we reported on a new study from the U.S. Department of Education that showed eighth-graders in the vast majority of states performed above the international average in math and science. The NAEP-TIMSS Linking Study also found that if Massachusetts and Vermont were their own countries, they would stand with the highest-achieving nations. As CPE’s Jim Hull has been writing for some time, the popular storyline that U.S. students get crushed in international comparisons is, in a lot of ways, a distortion of the actual record. Truth is, our fourth- and eighth-graders consistently score above average, and do especially well in reading and science. Even our high school students are slightly above average in those subjects, falling below in math only.

Is “above average” good enough? Of course not. We need to keep up our efforts to do better, particularly at the high school level. But it’s also important to keep in mind that even though we’re not number one, our students are not failing. Wish we could say the same about American adults.

Another report was released in October that deserves the attention of every American because it points to issues related to literacy in the U.S. that extend beyond the reach of schools alone. The Paris-based Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducts various studies of economic and social institutions internationally.  Stateside, they are perhaps best known for PISA which tests the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds.  During 2011 and 2012, OECD administered an assessment of literacy and numeracy as part of its Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The test was given to a representative sample of adults aged 16-to-65 in 21 OECD member countries.  The difference between adult performance and that of our younger students couldn’t be more striking: whereas the nation’s fourth-graders are competitive with their international peers, American adults perform below the international average, and in the case of math, far below.

In Figures 1 and 2 (below), I arranged the OECD adult findings alongside the same countries’ performance on international studies of elementary and secondary students’ knowledge and skills. Each country’s results are shown in relation to those of the U.S., meaning, a country is either below the U.S. average (gold), above the U.S. average (blue), or about the same as the U.S. (white).  The relationships are all statistically significant.

Figure 1 looks at reading/literacy performance. The first column shows performance on PIRLS, the reading assessment of fourth-graders. Second is the already mentioned PISA which is taken by 15-year-olds. Finally, the PIAAC adult results are shown in the third column on the right. So in Australia, for example, fourth-graders performed below the U.S. average and their 15-year-olds scored above the U.S. as did the adult population.

adult reading

Clearly, fourth-graders in the U.S. do very well in reading (PIRLS, 2011) compared to their international peers. They performed significantly higher than 13 of the 17 countries with PIRLS data, and only high-performing Finland outscored us.  While our relative performance drops among 15-year-olds — 5 out of 21 countries did better than we did — our overall performance was still somewhat above the international average (PISA, 2009). In contrast, our adult population scored below the international average, and was outperformed by 11 participating countries (PIAAC, 2012).

The U.S. adult performance in math is even more troubling. Figure 2 shows math results for grade 4 and grade 8 (TIMSS, 2011), 15-year-olds (PISA, 2009) and adults (PIAAC, 2012).

adult math

U.S. fourth-graders once again hold their own. They performed significantly better than their peers in 12 out of the 19 countries with TIMSS data; only two countries, Japan and Korea, scored higher.  U.S. adults, however, are significantly outperformed by their peers in 16 out of the 21 countries and surpass only Spain and Italy.

There are a lot of caveats and considerations in interpreting these results and the study raises more questions than provides answers, beginning with:

  • This is snapshot data, all of which was collected between 2009 and 2012. We need to look at longer trends to understand whether the high performance of fourth-graders today will translate into better adult outcomes later on, or if something else is happening with the adult population. One puzzle:  the nation has produced steadily improving math scores for several decades as measured by TIMSS, NAEP and SAT. Yet the difference between our older (age 55-65) and younger adults (16-24) is modest and represents the lowest growth between generations in the study. We should expect to see better adult outcomes. We need to know why we’re not.
  • The international assessments given to fourth- and eighth-graders (PIRLS and TIMSS) resemble tests typically taken by students and aligned with school curricula. Both PISA and PIAAC attempt to assess how well individuals apply their knowledge and skills in practical situations.  Could these differences at least partially explain the performance gap between our younger students and adults?
  • The overall poor performance of American adults has a perverse counter-image in those indicators the U.S. does lead in. The impact of social-economic class on adult literacy levels is greater here than in any other nation. We also lead in the relationship between literacy and wages, healthy living and civic participation, with those on the low end of the literacy scale having the least access.

The OECD findings don’t point to any specific cause. Nonetheless, there is clearly a role for schools. First, they need to build on the gains they are producing in elementary and middle school and double down on efforts to instruct high school students to higher levels. It would also serve schools well to examine instructional methods to make sure students learn concepts deeply and can apply them in unfamiliar situations — something, by the way, the new Common Core standards strive to do.

But we are wrong to believe that schools can solve the problem by themselves and there are a lot of players who need to share responsibility. We can begin by examining social and economic policies that affect adult lives, notably, the availability of continuing education, the impact of widening inequality, the ways we support new immigrants (or not), and the possible role our culture and media have on what we know and can do.

As the data show, schools are stepping up to the plate and as a result, our fourth- and eighth-graders are competitive in the international ballpark.  For now, our kids have every right to tell us grown-ups to hit the books.







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