Little kids reading

Yes, the U.S. Scored 12th in Literacy. No, It’s Not That Bad.

Deep breath. You might have heard that the U.S. has scored twelfth in an international literacy exam. Yes, this is true. Of the fifty-eight educational systems tested in the Progress in International Literacy Study (PIRLS), the U.S. placed twelfth. Moscow City, Russia, and Singapore nabbed the top spots.



Image Via the Washington Post


There’s widespread panic not only that the U.S. scored twelfth place, but that their position has dropped from fifth place when the exam was last administered in 2011. The jump from fifth to twelfth is raising blood pressures across the country.


But things aren’t as bad as they seem. First, there needs to be an understanding of what the PIRLS exam is. It’s an international exam that began in 1996 and is given to fourth-graders in participating countries once every five years. In 2016, the exam was given to 4,400 fourth graders—a statistically representative sample of U.S. students.


The test is out of 1,000 points and has four specific criteria it measures:  literary experience; acquiring and using information; retrieving and straightforward inferencing; and interpreting, integrating, and evaluating. Scoring higher than 550 points meets PIRLS’s standards of a high score. The mean score is 500.


One of the things to notice about the PIRLS is who the U.S. is competing with. They’re not all countries. Four of the educational systems that placed above the U.S. are Moscow, Northern Ireland, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei. Comparing the populations of these four places to the massively diverse population of the entire United States is, at its essence, misleading.


At twelfth place, the U.S. scored 549 points. Here’s the breakdown of how U.S. fourth-graders did in each category:


Literary experience: 557


Acquiring and using information: 543 


Retrieving and straightforward inferencing: 543

Interpreting, integrating, and evaluating: 555


As pointed out by executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable James Harvey, these scores are high. By the PIRLS’ standard, the U.S. has scored very high, as it has done for the twenty years the test has been administered.


Some other good news: since 2001, girls’ scores jumped two points and boys’ scores jumped twelve points! The gap between fourth-grade boys’ and girls’ literacy has closed from eighteen to eight. That’s pretty encouraging for educators.


The worst part, by far, of these findings is the enormous difference between high and low-income students. As Harvey points out:


Students in wealthier communities (those in schools with fewer than 10 percent of students eligible for free lunch services) produced average scores of 587. (Those students in schools with between 10-24.9 percent scored even higher: 592.) But students in schools with 75 percent or more eligible for free lunch services produced an average score of just 516.


That’s pretty heartbreaking. Clearly, the news isn’t all good, but there’s a lot to be encouraged by here. Overall, U.S. fourth-graders aren’t just doing fine. They’re actually scoring extremely high. The difference between scores in 2011 and 2016 is not at all enormous, and attention needs to be paid to who the U.S. is competing with. Basically, if you’re living in the U.S., don’t worry too much. Just start working on closing that enormous wealth gap.


Feature Photo by Ben White on Unsplash