In this report, we incorporate data from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS, a survey in which all of the aforementioned countries participated.
Essentially, PIRLS is an international assessment of the reading literacy of fourth-graders, or of those in the fourth year of formal schooling.4 But PIRLS supplements this assessment with background questionnaires of these children, their reading teachers and their school principals.5 Thus, the reading literacy assessment results are placed in a rich context of student, classroom, and school processes.
The PIRLS survey takes place every five years. It was first administered in 2001 and then again in 2006. Forty countries, including the United States, participated in PIRLS 2006, almost all drawing nationally representative samples from students in the fourth year of formal education (Mullis, Martin, Kennedy, and Foy 2007). Fourth grade was the selected population because it represents a key transitional point in children's development as readers. In most countries, children at the end of fourth grade are completing formal reading instruction (Mullis and Martin 2007).
In the reading assessment, reading purposes and comprehension processes were assessed based on ten passages: Five for the literary purpose and five for the informational purpose (Mullis and Martin 2007). Altogether, the assessment consisted of 126 test questions. Because the entire assessment would likely require more than four hours to complete, each student read only two of the passages, which were accompanied by approximately 12 questions (test items), with about half in the multiple-choice format and half in the constructed-response format (i.e., requiring students to write their own answers). Advanced psychometric procedures were incorporated by PIRLS to aggregate findings for individual students, so that their results appear to reflect achievement on the entire assessment. Such techniques are now commonplace in large-scale assessments and always incorporated into the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the “Nation’s Report Card.”
International assessments like PIRLS are huge, complex undertakings, costing millions of dollars and involving thousands of people world-wide. These enterprises are fraught with technical challenges. PIRLS has taken extraordinary measures to ensure that it meets rigorous assessment and sampling standards, but problems exist, due mostly to the fact that it is international survey. Translations, for example, can be particularly difficult in an international assessment of reading literacy.6 On the other hand, PIRLS has some advantages over other international assessments and surveys. Elementary school structures and practices are usually more similar across countries than is typically the case in high schools. Furthermore, since many of the same experts are involved, PIRLS generally applies the same state-of-the-art assessment and survey technologies that are used in the United States with NAEP.
PIRLS assessed fourth-graders in each country in the official language of that country. For example, in the United States and England, students were assessed in English; in Germany, the language of the assessment was German, but it Canada, students were tested in either English or French. In this report, we have defined language minority fourth-graders as those who did not speak the language (or languages) at home of the test (PIRLS) prior to enrollment in first grade. Thus, in this report a language minority student would be a fourth-grader who did not speak English in the United States and England; German in Germany, and either English or French in Canada, prior to their enrollment in the first grade.
Readers interested in further technical information on PIRLS should go to the PIRLS Web site, http://pirls.bc.edu.
For endnotes 4-6, please see PIRLS of wisdom: full report.
This explanation of the PIRLS report was written by Laurence T. Ogle, who served as the PIRLS National Research Coordinator at the National Center for Education Statistics (US Department of Education) for approximately 6 years (2001 - 2007). He now works as an independent researcher specializing in international education.