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Reading Literacy in the United States


Over the past 10 years, interest in the international standing of American students has grown rapidly. Although the recent history of this interest dates back to the 1950s at the time of Sputnik, the publication of A Nation at Risk1 in 1983 once again forced us to face the reality that American students appeared not to be as academically proficient as their peers in other industrialized nations. It was particularly disturbing to note the generally poor showing of the United States relative to nations that compete with us in world markets. We began to ask again whether our education system was up to the task of preparing American youth for the challenges of an increasingly complex, information-based society, and whether our competitive advantage in the world economy would be maintained into the 21st century.

These concerns generated a call to discover those aspects of our education system that might be changed to improve student performance. Cross-national studies are helpful in this respect. In addition to measuring student achievement and ranking nations in these terms, international studies also collect information on the education system of each participating country. This kind of information can be particularly useful since it allows educators everywhere to learn from the experiences of other nations.

In 1989 the United States joined the IEA International Reading Literacy Study.* Findings from this 32-nation study are available in several IEA publications.2 They show that, contrary to expectation, U.S. students turned in a creditable performance vis-a-vis their peers in other nations.

This preface introduces a study of the reading comprehension of 4th and 9th grade students in the United States that goes beyond simple comparisons of national achievement levels. It is based on the data generated by our participation in the IEA international project. We came away from that project with a rich body of information about our own schools and students, and we have taken the opportunity to use it to develop a detailed national report for the United States. International comparisons are part of this report. They are presented so that the reader can place the United States in an international perspective, compare the performance of various sectors of the U.S. population with the performance of children in other nations, and, thus, evaluate our students against a world standard. We examine the nature of the reading skills measured in the IEA study relative to those measured in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The report also looks at the reading comprehension skills of 4th graders, the variation in these skills across various subpopulations of students, and the explanations for these variations according to what families, teachers, and schools do and provide.

The analyses undertaken are somewhat technical and are reported in detail in a companion report, Reading Literacy in the United States: Technical Report. In this volume, however, the authors take pains to distill the findings and present them in a form that will be familiar to most readers. In so doing, they provide us with some valuable insights into the reading literacy of 4th and 9th graders across the nation.

Jeanne E. Griffith
Acting Commissioner,

* IEA--the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement--has been coordinating cross-national studies in a variety of subject matter areas since the late 1960s.

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