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Education Reporter

For U.S. Students, PIRLS Yields Few Pearls 
BOSTON, MA - The results of a new international study of 4th-grade reading achievement, released on April 8, show that only 30-40% of U.S. 4th-graders are proficient readers. U.S. students ranked ninth overall in literacy compared to 4th-graders in 34 other countries.

Called the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the report also found that U.S. students ranked thirteenth in understanding of factual textbook reading and fourth in fiction reading. The study was conducted by researchers at Boston College, who evaluated 150,000 students in 5,250 schools around the world.

In an interview with the Washington Times (4-9-03), the Bush Administration's top reading advisor, G. Reid Lyon, said the study is disappointing in that it found no change in the level of reading achievement of American students from two other reading studies conducted during the past decade. "That's very concerning," Lyon said. "We've still got stagnant rates, and it's a bit bothersome when we're comparing ourselves internationally, while at the same time we lose sight of the kids who aren't getting it in this country."

Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, stated in a press release that, "In the United States there are significant gaps in reading literacy achievement between racial/ethnic groups, between students in high poverty schools and other public schools, and also between boys and girls."

Other PIRLS results showed that:

  • 4th-grade girls outperform boys in reading literacy in every participating country.

  • Swedish students ranked first overall in reading achievement, performing highest in both informational and fiction reading.

  • 11% of U.S. students scored significantly below the international average.

  • Nearly all U.S. 4th-graders (95%) attend schools that emphasize reading instruction and 65% receive more than six hours of reading instruction per week, a higher percentage than the international average of 28%.

These results appear to indicate that while U.S. students are receiving sufficient amounts of reading instruction in the vast majority of public schools, well over a third are reading below grade level, and more than one in 10 are barely able to read. Supporters of phonics reading instruction point to the persistence of the education establishment in promoting the failed Whole Language reading programs. Whole Language instruction harms all children, they assert, but inflicts the most damage on boys and on children in the poorest and lowest-performing schools.

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