What does it mean to be literate? Part 2: Details on American achievement on PISA reading tests

Results of the every-three-year PISA reading tests (Program for International Student Assessment) were announced on Dec. 3, showing that U.S. 15-year-olds again scored average compared to their peers in 64 other countries.

Eight percent of American students who took the test scored in the top ranges; 17 per cent scored at the baseline low range; most scored at the average range.  In the U.S., Massachusetts and Connecticut had more students scoring in the top ranges than did South Korea while Florida scored just a bit below the total U.S. average.  Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida paid to have more of their students tested so that they could have a representative sample to use to compare their students.

Compare the U.S. scores with those of the best scoring countries:

US literacy rank among other high ranking countries.

What does all this mean?

    • Since the reading testing began in 2000, the U.S. has consistently scored in the average range in years in which comparisons can be made (2000, 2003, 2009 and 2012.


  • Despite the increase in testing of U.S. students, and despite publicizing the results of those tests, and despite shaking up public education with charter schools and other statewide initiatives, U.S. education is stagnating, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Why the mediocre showing by U.S. students?  Various reasons are proposed, especially the effects of poverty.  Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, emphasized the corrosive effects of poverty. The U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the world, double or triple the rate in PISA leading countries such as South Korea, Germany, Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands. Van Roekel called poverty “the main cause of our mediocre PISA performance.”

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