Bill Brozo & Sari Sulkunen International Literacy Assessments
Whenever there is a release of the findings from a new PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) cycle, it triggers a barrage of responses from pundits, policymakers, researchers, and the public. The recent release of the results of the 2018 PISA cycle has been no different. Commendatory words for those at the top of the league tables or have demonstrated impressive score point increases; voices of doom and gloom for countries that have shown poor or declining performance; and resignation among the significant number of lowest-achieving countries whose bottom of the table international rankings seem pre-ordained with each assessment cycle.
In Washington, DC, for instance, in January 2020 at a national literacy summit of chief state school officers the USA’s stagnant scores on PISA 2018 were blamed on, among other targets, ineffective reading curriculum and pedagogy or, expressed more bluntly by one of the summit participants, “30 years of bad practice.” These critiques are standard code language for approaches to teaching reading that are not considered “scientifically based”. In America scientific means systematic, phonetic approaches. Curiously, a brand new study from Great Britain (Bowers, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09515-y) offers scientific evidence to the contrary. After conducting a comprehensive review of 12 meta-analyses assessing the efficacy of systematic phonics as well as an analysis of the outcomes of teaching systematic phonics in all state schools in England since 2007, the author concludes there is no justification for emphasizing systematic phonics in primary school reading curricula.
Failure to teach reading effectively at the primary level is seen by US politicians as directly related to the flat trend line in US performance on PISA since the initial cycle in 2000. In other words, many view the reading struggles of adolescents as a legacy of poor reading instruction in earlier grades. This trend in overall PISA performance among American youth, however, tends to disguise a country of haves and have-nots when it comes to responsive literacy. As with previous cycles, the 2018 results place the US overall average in reading literacy at 495 or squarely in the average range among the 27 or so OECD participating countries. Unpacked, however, the US performance reveals a 3rd best placement for Asian-American 15-year-olds (549), surpassed only by a China province and Singapore; and a 7th place ranking on the league table for white teens (521), better than Japan, Korea, Canada, and Finland. On the same assessment, sadly, Hispanic-American youth scored 18 points below (470) the OECD average (488), while African-Americans were on average nearly 100 score points lower (436) than their white counterparts.
Thus, we see once again that the educational system appears to be working fine for certain American youth, while continuing to leave many others behind.
In Europe, too, there is a widespread concern about the literacy levels of adolescents and the inequities shown by the latest PISA results. The EU benchmark of Education and Training for 2020 (ET2020) – less than 15 % of students below PISA proficiency level 2 – has not been reached, on the contrary it seems to be slipping further away. On average across the EU nearly 22% of students are underachieving compared with 20% in PISA 2015. Only Estonia, Ireland, Finland and Poland meet the benchmark in the PISA 2018 results, and in some countries, the share of low-performers is more than 40%. Moreover, social inequities in literacy persist, as the socio-economic background strongly affects students’ performance in most EU countries. In these countries, the share of low-performers is greater in the lowest quarter of the PISA’s economic, social and cultural background index than in the top quarter.
These concerns are timely also in the European countries that pride themselves on high levels of literacy and education as well as equity. In Europe, these characteristics are associated with the Nordic countries, but among them Finland, Norway and Sweden show a declining trend in the average literacy score in PISA from the two previous cycles that focused on reading literacy − 2000 and 2009. In Finland, the share of low-performers has increased from 2009 by 5 percentage points to now nearly 14%. There are also signs about growing inequity in Finnish students’ literacy performance. The literacy gap between the lowest and highest quarters by economic, social, and cultural status among Finnish students is nearly 80 score points, which equates to nearly 2 school years’ progress. Moreover, the average performance among the students in the lowest socio-economic quarter is 21 score points lower than in 2009. In the top quarter there is practically no change. This has meant that in Finland the discussion about the equity in literacy is no longer only about the huge literacy gap between boys and girls but also about growing social inequity in society and education. These are concerns many other countries share, too.
The good news is that countries with a relatively low performance level and even countries with a good literacy level can improve their literacy performance. For example, a recent EU report highlights the ways Estonia, Poland, and Ireland have succeeded in this. In Poland students do not begin educational tracking until they reach the age of 16. In Estonia, every school provides a special needs coordinator as well as individualized support to students. In both Estonia and Ireland early childhood education and care have been expanded. And Ireland has reinvigorated its commitment to teacher recruitment and professional development. Where there is will, there are ways.