Good News on U.S. Reading Scores–Or Is It?

Published June 1, 2003

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which examined the performance of 150,000 fourth-grade students throughout the world, found U.S. 11-year-olds ranked higher than their counterparts in 23 of the 34 other participating nations. The study, prepared by Boston College researchers, was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the World Bank, and participating countries.

“The results from this study indicate that U.S. fourth-graders performed well on many reading tasks, but there is room for improvement,” said Grover Whitehurst, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences. “In the United States 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.”

The gender gap that disfavors boys is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Fourth-grade girls were better readers than boys in every country participating in the study. That disparity has not drawn nearly as much attention from advocates of social equality as has the general male advantage in mathematics.

Substantial Achievement Gaps

Other gaps are more distinctly American. While hailing “some pretty good news” in the overall report, the Progressive Policy Institute noted the “real bad news” is “more evidence that achievement gaps between white and minority and higher- and lower-income students within the United States are substantial.

“For example, while 64 percent of students in the lowest-poverty schools reach the upper quartile international benchmark, only 14 percent of those in the higher-poverty schools do so,” noted the Institute. “White students scored on average 565 points on the test’s scale, while black students scored only 502 and Hispanic students 517. In essence, it is more evidence that U.S. averages are being pulled down by the enormous disparities in American public education and should be cause for more action to rectify these problems.”

President George W. Bush’s top reading advisor, G. Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, expressed disappointment the study showed little or no change in the level of reading achievement by U.S. students from two studies done during the past decade.

“That’s very concerning,” he said in an interview with George Archibald of The Washington Times. “We’ve still got stagnant rates, and it’s a bit bothersome when we’re comparing ourselves internationally, while at the same time we lose sight of the kids who aren’t getting it in this country.”

As Good As It Gets

Another factor tempering the modicum of good news in the PIRLS report is that other studies have indicated fourth grade often is as good as it gets with regard to comparative academic performance of U.S. K-12 students.

For instance, U.S. fourth-graders rated near the top in the Third International Math and Science Study, but U.S. high school seniors ranked near the bottom. The same pattern has held true in National Assessment of Educational Progress measures of proficiency in basic subjects.

In the PIRLS study, U.S. fourth-graders scored high on reading fictional stories. Only children from Sweden, Holland, and England scored higher. However, the American 11-year-olds ranked much lower–only 13th–on their ability to understand informational text. Among the G-8 industrialized nations with which the U.S. is most often compared, U.S. fourth-graders were fifth out of seven in reading for information.

Almost all (95 percent) of American children attend schools that profess to emphasize reading, compared with the international average of 78 percent. In addition, 65 percent of the American pupils receive more than six hours of reading instruction a week, as opposed to the international average of 28 percent.

Whether U.S. schools teach reading by the most effective means is a question the PIRLS study does not address. (See “The ‘Crayola Curriculum,'” page XX.)

Sweden had the highest achievement of all participating countries, with Swedish pupils ranking first in reading both informational and fictional material.

The PIRLS study also showed students enrolled in private schools in the U.S. scored significantly higher in reading than did their peers in public schools.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].

For more information …

The April 2003 report from the U.S. Department of Education, “International Comparisons in Fourth-Grade Reading Literacy: Findings from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) of 2001,” is available online at