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2009 Spotlight

U.S. Performance Across International Assessments of Student Achievement

Reading results for 4th-graders

In PIRLS 2006, the average U.S. 4th-graders' reading literacy score (540) was above the PIRLS scale average of 500, but below that of 4th-graders in 10 of the 45 participating countries, including 3 Canadian provinces (Russian Federation, Hong Kong, Alberta, British Columbia, Singapore, Luxembourg, Ontario, Hungary, Italy, and Sweden) 16 (table 2). The top 10 percent of U.S. 4th-graders scored 631 or higher, a cutpoint score below that of the top 10 percent of students in 8 countries. The bottom 10 percent of U.S. 4th-graders scored 441 or lower, a cutpoint score below that of the bottom 10 percent of students in 13 countries.

PIRLS has developed four international benchmarks to help analyze the range of students' performance in reading within each participating country, with the highest, or Advanced, benchmark set at 625 score points. 17 For PIRLS 2006, students reaching the Advanced benchmark could interpret figurative language; integrate ideas across a text to provide interpretations of a character's traits, intentions, and feelings; and provide full text-based support for their interpretations. 18

In 2006, twelve percent of U.S. 4th-graders reached this benchmark (figure 1). Eight participating countries, including 3 Canadian provinces, had a higher percentage of 4th-graders reaching this benchmark, ranging from 19 to 15 percent: Singapore, Russian Federation, Alberta, Bulgaria, British Columbia, Ontario, England, and Luxembourg. Among the countries with a greater percentage of students than the United States reaching the Advanced benchmark, two did not have average student scores higher than the United States: Bulgaria and England. 19

Change over time

Among the 28 countries that participated in both the 2001 and 2006 PIRLS assessments, the average reading literacy score increased in 8 countries and decreased in 6 countries (figure 2). In the rest of these countries, including the United States, there was no measurable change in the average reading literacy score between 2001 and 2006. The number of these countries that outperformed the United States increased from 3 in 2001 to 7 in 2006. 20 Three of the countries that outperformed the United States in 2006 (Hong Kong, the Russian Federation, and Singapore) had scored below the United States, on average, in 2001. In contrast, in 2 of the 6 countries where 4th-graders showed measurable declines (England and The Netherlands), 4th-graders outperformed their U.S. peers in 2001, but were not measurably different than their U.S. peers in 2006.

PIRLS will be offered again in 2011. Results from the PIRLS 2006 assessment can be found in Baer et al. (2007; available at and Mullis et al. (2007; available at For more information on PIRLS, see

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16 Countries are listed in rank order from highest to lowest score for countries outperforming the United States.
17 See figure 1 for the cut scores established for the other three international benchmarks. For details about all the international benchmarks, see Mullis et al. (2007), chapter 2.
18 The IEA set international benchmarks for PIRLS based on an analysis of score points. The score points for each benchmark remain the same across assessments; however, the configuration of items that define what students reaching a benchmark can do may vary slightly from one assessment to the next. For more details on the IEA's benchmarks and how they differ from PISA's levels of proficiency, see appendix A.
19 There was no measurable difference between the average student scores in the United States and in Bulgaria and England.
20 Luxembourg and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia also outperformed the United States in 2006, but they did not participate in 2001.