2006 Spotlight

U.S. Student and Adult Performance on International Assessments of Educational Achievement

How Do U.S. Students and Adults Compare With Their Peers in Other Countries?


Three international assessments measure aspects of reading skills. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assesses 4th-grade reading skills. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) focuses on the ability of 15-year-olds to apply their reading skills to a wide variety of materials within a real-life context; and the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL) assesses the literacy skills of adults ages 16–65.


Administered in 35 countries in 2001, PIRLS defines reading literacy as

"The ability to understand and use those written language forms required by society and/or valued by the individual. Young readers can construct meaning from a variety of texts. They read to learn, to participate in communities of readers in school and everyday life, and for enjoyment. (Mullis et al. 2004a, p. 3)."

To measure the reading literacy skills and abilities of 4th-graders, PIRLS used a combination of literary texts—passages drawn from children’s books—and informational texts—passages providing information on people, places, and things. Students were asked to demonstrate skills and abilities such as retrieving specific information, making inferences, interpreting and integrating ideas and information, and examining and evaluating content and language.

  • U.S. 4th-graders had higher average reading literacy scores than the international average and higher scores than students in 23 of the 34 other participating countries in 2001.

The results from PIRLS indicate that U.S. 4th-graders performed as well as or better than most of their international peers in the other 34 participating countries (table 2). Specifically, U.S. 4th-graders performed above the international average, and, on average, they outperformed students in two-thirds of the other participating countries. The performance of students in about one-quarter of the participating countries was not measurably different from that of U.S. students. Students in three countries (Sweden, the Netherlands, and England) outperformed U.S. students, on average. The average score of U.S. 4th-graders was not measurably different from the average student scores in other industrialized countries such as Canada (Ontario and Quebec), Italy, and Germany. U.S. 4th-graders outscored their peers in some industrialized countries, such as New Zealand, Scotland, France, and Norway, as well as in a number of developing countries.

In addition to overall reading scores, PIRLS provides subscale scores for specific reading skills: reading for literary experience and reading to acquire and use information. On average, U.S. 4th-graders performed as well as or better than their peers in most countries in both reading subscales (Ogle et al. 2003). Students in only one country, Sweden, outperformed U.S. students in reading for literacy experience; students in five countries (Sweden, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Latvia, and England) outperformed U.S. students in reading to acquire and use information.

As with all international assessments in which the United States participates, PIRLS data can be analyzed to provide information on the achievement of student subpopulations. For example, 19 percent of U.S. students performed among the top 10 percent of all 4th-graders across the 35 countries that participated in PIRLS in 2001, a percentage exceeded only in England (Ogle et al. 2003). Among U.S. 4th-graders, a larger percentage of White students performed in the top 10 percent of all students than their Black or Hispanic peers. In all 35 countries, including the United States, girls outperformed boys in reading. Girls in Sweden, England, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria outperformed U.S. girls in reading, on average, while boys in the Netherlands and Sweden outperformed U.S. boys.

PIRLS will be repeated in 2006, providing more information about the progress of U.S. students in reading relative to other countries. Results of the PIRLS 2001 assessment can be found in Ogle et al. (2003; available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?
) and Mullis et al. (2003; available at http://isc.bc.edu/pirls2001i/PIRLS2001_Pubs_IR.html).


PISA measured the reading literacy of 15-year-olds in 2000. In this study, reading literacy was defined as “understanding, using, and reflecting on written texts in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society” (OECD 1999, p. 20). PISA measured the extent to which students could apply different reading processes (retrieving information, interpreting text, and reflecting on text) to a range of reading materials they were likely to encounter as young adults, such as government forms, newspaper articles, manuals, books, and magazines.

  • U.S. 15-year-olds scored at the OECD average in reading literacy in 2000.

PISA 2000 results showed that U.S. 15-year-olds performed as well as or better than most of their peers in the 30 other participating countries (table 3). On average, students in Finland, Canada, and New Zealand outperformed U.S. students, but the U.S. average scores were not significantly different from those in most other industrialized countries as well as the OECD average.3 PISA also provided subscale scores based on processes used when reading a text: retrieving information from text; interpreting texts; and reflecting on texts to relate to other experiences, knowledge, or ideas. U.S. 15-year-olds scored at the OECD average on all three reading processes measured. However, students in five countries outperformed U.S. students on a measure of retrieving information, and students in four countries outperformed U.S. students on a measure of reflecting on texts. On a measure of interpreting texts, students in two countries—Finland and Canada—outperformed U.S. 15-year-olds (Lemke et al. 2001).

Thirteen percent of U.S. students performed among the top 10 percent of all 15-year-olds in Statistics Canada and OECD-member countries that participated in PISA 2000 (Lemke et al. 2001), and about one-third of U.S. students were found to read at the two highest levels of performance. Similar to the results in the PIRLS 2001 study, girls outperformed boys in reading literacy in the United States and all other participating PISA countries (Lemke et al. 2001). More information on the performance of other student population groups can be found in Lemke et al. (2001; available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/
) and OECD (2001; available at http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/44/53/


In 2003, the United States participated in ALL along with five other countries. The study assessed the literacy and numeracy skills of adults ages 16–65 through a written test administered in respondents’ homes. In this study, literacy was defined as the knowledge and skills needed by adults, in life and at work, to use information from various texts (e.g., news stories, editorials, manuals, brochures) in various formats (e.g., texts, maps, tables, charts, forms, time tables) (Statistics Canada and OECD 2005). The ALL test questions were developed to assess the respondent’s ability to retrieve, compare, integrate, and synthesize information from texts and to make inferences, among other skills.

  • U.S. adults had lower literacy skills, on average, than adults in Norway, Bermuda, Canada, and Switzerland in 2003 and had higher literacy skills than adults in Italy.

Results from ALL showed that U.S. adults outperformed adults in Italy in 2003, but were outperformed by adults in Norway, Bermuda, Canada, and Switzerland (table 4). Adults in Bermuda, Norway, and Canada had higher literacy scores than U.S. adults at both the high and low ends of the score distribution (Lemke et al. 2005). The highest performers (the top 10 percent of adults) had literacy scores of 353 or higher in Bermuda, 348 or higher in Norway, and 344 or higher in Canada, compared with 333 or higher in the United States. The lowest performers (those in the bottom 10 percent) in Bermuda had literacy scores of 213 or lower, 233 or lower in Norway, and 209 or lower in Canada, compared with 201 or lower in the United States. The lowest performers in Switzerland also outperformed their U.S. counterparts in literacy, scoring 216 or lower.

In contrast to the results in PIRLS and PISA, there was no measurable difference in the literacy performance of men and women in the United States and in Bermuda, Canada, and Norway (Lemke et al. 2005). In Italy and Switzerland, men outperformed women. In the United States, White adults outscored Black and Hispanic adults, on average, on literacy tasks.

More countries will have collected data by 2005, allowing for additional comparisons of adult skills and knowledge. Detailed information on the results from ALL 2003 can be found in Statistics Canada and OECD (2005; available at http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/89-603-XIE/

3The international average reported for PISA is based on results only from the OECD-member countries. Because PISA is primarily an OECD study, results for non-OECD-member countries are displayed separately from those of OECD countries and are not included in the OECD average. (back to text)

Figures and Tables

Table 2: Average PIRLS reading literacy scores of 4th-graders, by country: 2001

Table 3: Average PISA reading literacy scores of 15-year-olds, by country: 2000

Table 4: Average ALL literacy scores of adults ages 16–65, by country: 2003

Table SA3: Standard errors for table 2: Average PIRLS reading literacy scores of 4th-graders, by country: 2001

Table SA4: Standard errors for table 3: Average PISA reading literacy scores of 15-year-olds, by country: 2000

Table SA5: Standard errors for table 4: Average ALL literacy scores of adults ages 16–65, by country: 2003