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Reading Literacy by Benchmarks

Average scores in figure 3 indicate how well the United States performs relative to other countries, but the scores do not indicate the proficiency required to reach a particular score. To gain a better understanding of what scores represent in terms of reading proficiency, PIRLS 2001 selected four cutoff points on the combined reading literacy scale labeled international benchmarks. These benchmarks were selected to correspond to the score points at or above which the lower quarter, median, upper quarter, and top 10 percent of fourth-graders in the international PIRLS 2001 sample performed4.

Student responses at the four benchmarks were analyzed to describe a set of reading skills and strategies displayed by fourth-graders at those points. These descriptions, together with the cut point scores, are listed in figure 55.

  • On the combined reading literacy scale, 19 percent of the fourth-grade students in the United States reach the top 10 percent benchmark, 41 percent the upper quarter benchmark, 68 percent the median benchmark, and 89 percent the lower quarter benchmark (figure 6). The percentage of U.S. fourth-graders reaching each of these benchmarks is higher than the international averages.
  • Compared with the United States, no other country but England (24 percent) reports a higher percentage of students at the top 10 percent benchmark on the combined reading literacy scale. Sweden (47 percent) reports a higher share of students at the upper quarter benchmark compared to the United States.
  • On the literary subscale, for the United States, 22 percent of the students reach the top 10 percent benchmark, 43 percent the upper quarter benchmark, 70 percent the median benchmark, and 90 percent the lower quarter benchmark. The percentage of U.S. fourth-graders reaching each of these benchmarks on the literary subscale is higher than the corresponding international averages.
  • On the informational subscale, for the United States, 15 percent of the students reach the top 10 percent benchmark, 36 percent the upper quarter benchmark, 67 percent the median benchmark, and 89 percent the lower quarter benchmark. The percentage of U.S. fourth-graders reaching these benchmarks on the informational subscale is higher than the corresponding international averages.


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