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K-12 Education  >  National Measures of Achievement
Reading Competency: An International Perspective
(Updated June 2015)

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) allows us to compare the reading competency of 15-year-olds in the United States to their counterparts in a number of other nations.

Findings and Trends

  • On the 2012 International Reading Assessment, the average score for American 15-year-olds was similar to the scores for students in several other Western industrialized nations—such as France, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Denmark—and was not statistically significantly different from the OECD average. However, the U.S. score was statistically significantly lower than the scores for 19 participating jurisdictions (29% of the total participants in the assessment; Indicator I-1g).[1]
  • Among U.S. 15-year-olds, 8% scored at the two highest levels (5 and 6), meaning they were capable of completing reading tasks involving unfamiliar and challenging texts (Indicator I-1h; see the OECD’s Profile of Student Performance in Reading for a detailed description of the types of tasks associated with each proficiency level). Fourteen jurisdictions (22% of the jurisdictions participating in the 2012 assessment) had statistically significantly greater shares of students who were able to perform reading tasks of this kind. In top-ranked Shanghai and Singapore, more than 21% of students were able to complete such tasks.
  • Seventeen percent of American 15-year-olds demonstrated reading literacy at below-basic levels (i.e., scored at Level 1 or below) in 2012. Fourteen jurisdictions (22% of participating jurisdictions), ten of which are depicted on Indicator I-1h, had statistically significantly lower shares of students demonstrating such minimal reading literacy.
  • The relative performance of U.S. 15-year-olds in 2012 was stronger in reading than in math or science (Indicator I-1i). The United States was outperformed by fewer nations on the reading assessment than on the science and math exams. Moreover, the average differential between the mean U.S. score and those of higher-scoring jurisdictions on the reading literacy assessment (approximately 25 points) was smaller than that for the science or math exams (approximately 33 points and 40 points, respectively).
  • The 2009 PISA survey provided a more detailed analysis of the skills that constitute reading literacy.[2] American adolescents did best on the reading literacy test items meant to gauge students’ ability to reflect on and evaluate what they had read (Indicator I-1j), for which their average score was statistically significantly higher than the OECD average. They did less well on tasks that involved accessing and retrieving information. But even on the higher-order reading tasks on which they tended to do better, American students were outperformed by students in China (Shanghai and Hong Kong), Korea, and Canada, among other jurisdictions.
I-1g: Average Scores on International Reading Assessment, 2012*

* The graph does not display jurisdictions whose average scores were not measurably different from that of the United States at the .05 level of significance. These jurisdictions include Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, “PISA 2012: Data Tables, Figures, and Exhibits (NCES 2014-024), 39, table R2.

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I-1h: International Reading Literacy of 15-Year-Olds, 2012*

* Jurisdictions are ranked by percentage of students scoring at Level 5 or above. Tasks at Level 5 “that involve retrieving information require the student to locate and organise several pieces of deeply embedded information, inferring which information in the text is relevant. Reflective tasks require critical evaluation or hypotheses, drawing on specialised knowledge. Both interpreting and reflective tasks require a full and detailed understanding of a text whose content or form is unfamiliar. For all aspects of reading, tasks at this level typically involve dealing with concepts that are contrary to expectations” ( For a list of nations where the share of students scoring at Level 5 or higher was not measurably different from that of the United States, click the “About the Data” button below.
** The OECD describes Level 2 as “a baseline level of proficiency at which students begin to demonstrate the reading literacy competencies that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life” (
† Statistically significantly lower, at the .05 significance level, than the U.S. percentage of students at Level 1 or below. Other jurisdictions with lower percentages are Estonia, Macao (China), Poland, and Switzerland.

Source: OECD Program for International Student Assessment, “PISA 2012: Data Tables, Figures, and Exhibits,” tables R1 and R1b; and the PISA International Data Explorer.

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I-1i: Two Measures of the Literacy Performance Gap between the United States and Other International Jurisdictions, 2012*

* As measured by the PISA Reading Literacy Assessment.
** At the .05 significance level.

Source: OECD Program for International Student Assessment, “PISA 2012: Data Tables, Figures, and Exhibits,” tables M4, R2, and S2.

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I-1j: Average Scores on International Reading Literacy Subscales, 2009*

* Average scores for additional countries are provided in the supporting table.
** At the .05 significance level.

Source: OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The PISA International Data Explorer (, was used to access and analyze the data.

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[1] The average combined reading literacy scores for the following 11 jurisdictions (17% of the 65 participating jurisdictions) were not statistically significantly different from the U.S. score:
  • Austria
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • France
  • Hungary
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • United Kingdom
  • Vietnam
[2] PISA is administered every three years. In each data collection year, one of the three main subjects (math, science, or reading) is the major domain and the other two areas are considered minor domains. In 2012, the major domain was mathematics, and subscale scores are provided. In 2015, the major domain will be science. Reading will again be the major domain in 2018.