Peggy G. Carr, Ph.D.
Acting Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics
NCES Statement on PIRLS 2016
December 5, 2017
Today, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is releasing results on the performance of students in the United States from two studies: the Progress in Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and a companion study known as ePIRLS conducted in 2016. PIRLS is a paper-based assessment of reading ability whereas ePIRLS is a computer-based extension of PIRLS. These cross-national comparative studies are undertaken and coordinated by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), an international organization of national research institutions and governmental research agencies. The technical aspects of these studies are coordinated by the TIMSS1 & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College.
PIRLS assesses student performance in reading literacy at the fourth grade, when the focus shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. The PIRLS assessment measures two reading purposes: reading for literary experiences and reading to acquire and use information. PIRLS incorporates the latest approaches to measuring reading ability, and its results suggest the degree to which students have learned reading literacy concepts and skills likely taught in school. PIRLS also collects background information on students, teachers, and schools to facilitate cross-national comparisons of educational contexts that may be related to student reading achievement.
The year 2016 marks the first administration of ePIRLS, an innovative, computer-based assessment of online reading. It is designed to measure students' approaches to informational reading in an online environment. As the internet becomes a more common method of acquiring information, ePIRLS provides measures of students' online reading skills and competencies. ePIRLS assessed students via computer, in a simulated internet environment. Unlike PIRLS, ePIRLS focuses only on one reading purpose: reading to acquire and use information. ePIRLS also collects background information on students, teachers, and schools to facilitate cross-national comparisons of educational contexts that may be related to students' online reading comprehension, such as the use of computers in the classroom.
The NCES report, Reading Achievement of U.S. Fourth-Grade Students in an International Context, provides comparisons of U.S. fourth-grade students with their peers in other countries. The report also includes the percentages of students reaching international benchmark levels of proficiency and changes in U.S. performance over time. For the United States, results of PIRLS and ePIRLS also allow comparisons by students' gender and race/ethnicity as well as school socioeconomic status.
Any country—and any large subnational education system—may participate in PIRLS. In 2016, some 58 education systems participated in PIRLS at the fourth-grade level. For this presentation, we use the term "education system" to refer to either complete, independent political entities or nonnational entities that represent a portion of a country. PIRLS results are intended for use by educators, policymakers, and interested members of the public. The assessment data provided by PIRLS is an important external perspective on the performance of our nation's students.
Administration of PIRLS and ePIRLS Assessments
PIRLS was administered between March and June of 2016 in the United States. The U.S. sample was randomly selected and weighted to be representative of all fourth-grade students in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In the United States, a total of 158 schools and 4,425 students participated in PIRLS and 153 schools and 4,090 students participated in ePIRLS. IEA generally requires an education system to sample at least 150 schools and at least 2,000 students (in education systems having at least that many schools and students) to reliably and accurately represent performance.
More information about how the PIRLS assessments were developed and conducted is included in the technical appendices of the U.S. national report. An additional source of information will be the studies' technical reports, to be published by the IEA in 2018.
Reporting of PIRLS Results
PIRLS provides estimates of the performance of students in an education system, not individual student or school scores. Results are reported on an overall reading scale ranging from 0 to 1,000 (where the centerpoint is fixed at 500 and the standard deviation is 100). The PIRLS reading achievement scale was established in PIRLS 2001 based on the achievement distribution across all countries or education systems that participated in 2001. The results of each successive administration of PIRLS have been placed on the same scale so that scores are comparable across years. The ePIRLS results are also reported on the same scale as PIRLS. In addition to the overall scale, PIRLS results are available for four subscales that represent reading purposes and processes of comprehension. However, the focus of ePIRLS is on reading for information. The PIRLS scale provides a more general measure of reading literacy.
PIRLS results are also reported using international benchmarks. These benchmarks provide a way to interpret the scale scores. Each successive point, or benchmark, is associated with the knowledge and skills that students successfully demonstrate at each level. PIRLS describes four levels: Advanced, set at 625, High, set at 550, Intermediate, set at 475, and Low, set at 400. Descriptions of the kinds of skills and knowledge required for answering items successfully at each benchmark level are provided.
U.S. 2016 Performance in Reading in Fourth Grade
The U.S. overall average reading score was 549, higher than the PIRLS scale centerpoint of 500. The U.S. average was higher than that of 30 education systems and lower than that of 12 education systems; 15 education systems had scores not significantly different from the U.S. score. The 12 education systems with average scores higher than the United States were Moscow City in Russia, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Ireland, Finland, Poland, Northern Ireland, Norway, Chinese Taipei, England, and Latvia
PIRLS International Benchmarks of Proficiency
Sixteen percent of U.S. fourth-graders reached the Advanced international benchmark; seven education systems had higher percentages of fourth-graders reaching the Advanced international benchmark.
Trends in U.S. Fourth-Graders PIRLS Overall Reading Scores
There was no measurable change in the U.S. overall reading scores between 2001 (the first PIRLS administration) and2016. The overall reading scores declined from 556 to 549 between 2011(the last PIRLS administration) and 2016. The overall average reading scores increased in 11 education systems between 2001 and 2016 and in 10 education systems between 2011 and 2016.
U.S. PIRLS Performance by Student Gender
In 2016, U.S. females outperformed their male peers, on average (553 versus 545). This gender gap narrowed from 2001, when females scored 18 points higher than males, on average. Three education systems showed no measurable differences in male and female overall reading scores: Macao-China, Portugal, and Andalusia, Spain.
U.S. PIRLS Performance by Student Characteristics
Compared to the U.S. overall average reading score, Asian fourth-graders scored higher, on average, than students in all other race/ethnicity categories. U.S. fourth-graders in public schools with less than 50 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored higher than the U.S. overall average scale score, on average. Fourth-graders in public schools with more than 75 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored lower than the U.S. overall average scale score, on average.
U.S. Results From ePIRLS 2016
In the new 2016 ePIRLS online assessment, the United States scored above the ePIRLS scale centerpoint, set at 500. U.S. fourth-graders' ePIRLS online informational reading average score was 557. This was higher than the average scores of 10 education systems on the ePIRLS. Three education systems scored higher than the United States and two education systems were not significantly different.
ePIRLS International Benchmarks
In 2016, 18 percent of U.S. fourth-graders scored at or above the Advanced benchmark in online informational reading, and 56 percent of U.S. fourth-graders scored at or above the High benchmark. The United States scored above the percentage of students at the international median reaching the Advanced and High benchmarks. Only one education system, Singapore, performed better than the United States on the ePIRLS Advanced benchmark.
U.S. ePIRLS Performance by Student Gender
U.S. females scored higher on average on online informational reading compared to U.S. males. In 2016, U.S. females' average online reading score was 560 compared to U.S. males' average score of 554. Three education systems—Italy, Portugal, and Denmark—showed no measurable difference in male and female online informational reading scores.
U.S. ePIRLS Performance by Student Characteristics
Compared to the U.S. average online informational reading scale score, Asian fourth-graders scored higher, on average, than students in all other race/ethnicity categories.
Summary of U.S. PIRLS and ePIRLS Results
In summary, for both PIRLS and ePIRLS, U.S. students:
In addition, among the 16 education systems that participated in both PIRLS and ePIRLS, only two education systems scored higher than the United States on the Advanced benchmark on PIRLS, and only Singapore scored higher on that level in ePIRLS. Likewise, among these 16 systems, the United States had average scores higher than 10 systems on ePIRLS, compared to only 6 systems on PIRLS.
For More Information
This statement highlights some of the major findings from PIRLS and ePIRLS from the U.S. perspective. The report, available on the NCES website, provides many more details. Other findings are available in the IEA's reports on PIRLS and ePIRLS 2016. For more information on the U.S. PIRLS and ePIRLS results, please visit the PIRLS website at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pirls.
1 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study