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K-12 Education  >  National Measures of Achievement
 
Reading Competency: An International Perspective
(Updated September 2017)

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 other nations.

Findings and Trends

  • On the 2015 PISA, the average reading score for American 15-year-olds was similar to the scores for students in several other Western industrialized nations—such as Denmark, France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—and was not measurably different from the OECD average (Indicator I-1g).[1] However, the U.S. average score was measurably lower than the average scores for 11 OECD nations (31% of the total OECD participants in the assessment.)
  • Among U.S. 15-year-olds, 9% 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 and Indicator I-1i; see the OECD’s documentation, beginning on page 161, for a detailed description of the types of tasks associated with each proficiency level). Six jurisdictions had measurably larger shares of students who were able to perform reading tasks of this kind. In top-ranked Canada, Finland, and New Zealand, 14% of students were able to complete such tasks.
  • Nineteen percent of American 15-year-olds demonstrated reading literacy at below-basic levels (i.e., scored below Level 2) in 2012. Ten jurisdictions had measurably 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-1j). The United States was measurably 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 measurably higher-scoring jurisdictions on the reading literacy assessment (18 points) was smaller than that for the science or math exams (approximately 22 points and 33 points respectively).
  • The 2009 PISA 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 their ability to reflect on and evaluate what they had read (Indicator I-1k), with an average score (512.1) measurably higher than the OECD average of 494.5. 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 Score on International Reading Assessment, by Jurisdiction, 2015

* In the cases of nations with measurably larger and smaller shares than the United States, the difference is statistically significant at the 5% level. Certain jurisdictions in gray had smaller or larger shares, but whether these differences were attributable not to a sampling error but to actual differences in the levels of performance between those nations and the United States could not be determined with a sufficient level of confidence.

Source: Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), OECD Data Explorer, http://pisadataexplorer.oecd.org/ide/idepisa/, accessed 2/23/2017. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

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I-1h: International Reading Literacy of 15-Year-Olds (Proficiency Levels), by Jurisdiction, 2015 (Ranked by the Share of Students Scoring at Level 5 or Above)
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “Reading Literacy: Proficiency Levels,” https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/pisa2015/pisa2015highlights_4a.asp, accessed 2/23/2017. Data presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).
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I-1i: International Reading Literacy of 15-Year-Olds (Shares of High and Low Performers), by Jurisdiction, 2015

* In the cases of nations with measurably larger and smaller shares than the United States, the difference is statistically significant at the 5% level. Certain jurisdictions in gray had smaller or larger shares, but whether these differences were attributable not to a sampling error but to actual differences in the levels of performance between those nations and the United States could not be determined with a sufficient level of confidence.
** 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” (see PISA 2015 Results: Excellence and Equity in Education, Volume I, page 164).

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “Reading Literacy: Proficiency Levels,” https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/pisa2015/pisa2015highlights_4a.asp, accessed 2/23/2017. Data presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

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I-1j: Two Measures of the Literacy Performance Gap between the United States and Other International Jurisdictions, 2015

* At the 5% significance level.

Source: Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), OECD Data Explorer, http://pisadataexplorer.oecd.org/ide/idepisa/, accessed 2/23/2017. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

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

* Average scores for additional countries are provided in the supporting table.
** At the 5% significance level.

Source: Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), OECD Data Explorer, http://pisadataexplorer.oecd.org/ide/idepisa/, accessed 2/23/2017. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

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../cmsData/xls/SuppI-1k.xls../cmsData/ppt/indI-1k.ppt../cmsData/pdf/indI-1k.pdf

Endnotes

[1] For the purposes of these indicators, a measurable difference is one that is statistically significant at the 5% level.
[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 were provided. In 2015, the major domain was science. Reading will again be the major domain in 2018.