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International Assessments

Iea And Oecd Studies Of Reading Literacy

Globalization, increased worker mobility, and competition between knowledge-based economies have led to a growth in demand for studies to measure and compare the achievement outcomes of education systems. Given its importance in students' educational development and in everyday life, it is not surprising that reading has featured in a number of these studies. Reflecting a concern with functional aspects of learning, the assessment of reading was expanded from one that mainly focused on decoding and comprehension skills to one that addressed the ability to understand and use written language forms required by society and valued by the individual.

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), a nongovernmental organization, pioneered international assessment studies in the early 1960s. The number of education systems (mostly in the industrialized world) participating in its reading studies increased from fifteen in 1970–1971 to thirty-two in 1991–1992 and to thirty-six in 2001. In the studies assessment instruments were developed by international panels, translated into national languages, and administered to representative samples of nine-or ten-year-old students and thirteen-or fourteen-year-old students in participating countries. A variety of correlates of reading proficiency, including students' opportunity to learn and resources for reading, were identified.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), responding to concern among member governments about the preparedness of young people to enter society and the world of work, has supported the development of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is designed to monitor the achievements of fifteen-year-old students in reading literacy (as well as in mathematics and science). Thirty-two countries participated in the first survey in 2000. The ability to comprehend forms of prose organized as continuous and noncontinuous text, such as lists and forms, and to retrieve and evaluate information were assessed.

In the 1990s a number of countries (eventually twenty) joined with Statistics Canada in studies, later involving OECD, to assess the ability of adults (sixteen to sixty-five years old) to understand and employ written information in daily activities at home, at work, and in the community. Reading tasks were based on text from newspapers and brochures, maps, timetables, and charts; basic arithmetic tasks were also included. Proficiency was found to be negatively related to age and, in eighteen countries, respondents' level of education was its strongest predictor.

Although international studies were initially planned to improve understanding of the educational process and to provide information relevant to policymaking and educational planning, the media have generally interpreted their findings in a competitive context, focusing on countries' relative performances, without considering the social, economic, and educational conditions that affect student learning.


ELLEY, WARWICK B. 1992. How in the World Do Students Read? The Hague, Netherlands: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

INTERNATIONAL ADULT LITERACY SURVEY. 2000. Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; Ottawa, ON: Statistics Canada.



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