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Reading Literacy in the United States

Executive Summary

In 1991, the IEA Reading Literacy Study assessed the reading literacy of 4th and 9th graders in many countries. This report presents three sets of findings from that report:

How does the reading performance of American students compare to that of students in other countries?

The IEA study painted an encouraging picture of the reading literacy of American students, as shown in the first section of the report. American 4th graders outperformed students from all other nations except Finland and Sweden. American 9th graders performance was closely grouped with that of students from 15 other nations. American students outperformed students from 14 countries, while students from Finland outperformed Americans.

To create a meaningful benchmark that would provide comparisons to many of our trading partners and competitors, we constructed a world average of the 18 participating countries that are also members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Judged against this world average, American students perform well overall. Among the 4th graders, the reading performance of about 60 percent of U.S. students meets or exceeds the OECD average in the narrative and expository domains, as it does for 70 percent of U.S. students for documents. The comparative advantage of American students is not as great at 9th grade, where 52 to 55 percent of U.S. students meet or exceed the OECD average.

How does the reading performance of subpopulations of U.S. students compare to that of students in other countries?

The reading performance of U.S. students is related to student characteristics such as race/ethnicity, parental education, and family structure. At both 4th and 9th grade, white students, on average, read better than black and Hispanic students, and students with at least one parent having a college degree read better, on average, than students whose parents have not finished high school. Students whose families are poor do not read as well as those students whose families are better off.

Most groups of American students outperform the OECD average. Even the most disadvantaged American students do not differ dramatically from the OECD average. The reading performance of white students, those with at least one parent who attended college, and those with higher levels of family wealth exceed the OECD average at both 4th and 9th grade. In general, the average performance of Hispanic students does not differ from the OECD average, while the average performance of black students is below the OECD average. Those whose parents did not finish high school read at about the same level as the OECD average at 4th grade, but fall below the OECD average in the 9th grade. The poorest quartile of students (in terms of an indirect measure of family wealth) performs at about the OECD average in both grades. Four types of family structure were examined in the reporttwo biological parents, two-parent blended families, mother-only families, and other familiesand students from each of these types of families meet or exceed the OECD average in both grades. Thus, only the performance of black students in both grades and those in 9th grade whose parents did not complete high school did not consistently meet or exceed the OECD average.

Among white students, about 70 percent of 4th graders and 60 percent of 9th graders equal or exceed the OECD average. The comparable figures for black students are less than 40 percent among 4th graders and less than 30 percent among 9th graders, and for Hispanic students, 44 to 53 percent among 4th graders and about 35 percent for 9th graders. Among both 4th and 9th graders, two-thirds of students with college-educated mothers exceed the OECD average. In addition, 4th graders whose mothers are high school dropouts, on average, do as well as the OECD average. But fewer 9th graders whose mothers are high school dropouts do as wellonly about 35 percent equal or exceed the OECD average. Essentially the same observations apply to fathers education.

How do the results from the IEA Reading Literacy Study compare with results from the U.S.s own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)?

Although the overall credible performance of American students on the IEA Reading Literacy Test may seem inconsistent with the findings of NAEP, which found that only a small percentage of American students were able to read at an advanced level, this apparent inconsistency may be due to differences in the points of comparison used to report findingsIEA reporting is based on comparisons of student performance across countries while much of NAEP reporting is based on comparisons of student performance against a desired standard that has been defined independently of test results.

A close examination of the two tests reveals marked differences in definitions of reading literacy and in what students must do to demonstrate their comprehension of material. The IEA test mainly asks students to recognize details and to make simple inferences and literal interpretations. The NAEP test requires students to do all these things, but in addition, it asks them to identify themes, detect the authors point of view, make larger inferences, express opinions and support them with citations from the text, and write summaries of the reading selections on the test.

How do the characteristics of families and schools relate to the reading performance of American students when other factors are taken into account?

Factors such as parental education, family wealth, race/ethnicity, and family structure tend to be related to one another. For example, the parents in poor families are more likely to be high school dropouts. The second section of the report is based on statistical analyses that tease out the unique nature of relationships between the characteristics of 4th grade students, their families, their schools, teachers, and communities, and narrative comprehension levels, and that allow an interpretation of the effect of individual factors other things equal.

The results of those analyses suggest that when differences in wealth, race/ethnicity, level of parental education, and other related attributes are taken into account, children from one-parent mother-only families appear to do as well as children from two-parent families in which both parents are the students biological parents, and both do better than children from two-parent blended families, where one or both of the parents is a stepparent or guardian.

Although coming from a poor family is strongly associated with poor reading achievement, when parents education, minority status, and the like are factored out, the apparent reading achievement gap between the rich and poor is reduced by two-thirds. The educational attainments of both mothers and fathers influence reading comprehension over and above other aspects of family background.

In elementary schools with high levels of parental involvement, children do better in reading comprehension; other things equal, 4th grade average reading scores are 26 points below the national average where involvement is low but 17 points above the national average where parent involvement is high.

What does reading instruction look like in the United States?

The third section of the report examines the beliefs and practices of American teachers with regard to the teaching of reading. Teachers responses to questions related to instructional practices suggest that what teachers say they believe about reading instruction differs markedly from what they actually do and have students do.

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