Jan 2, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

What countries are excelling and which are falling behind when it comes to fourth-grade reading comprehension? The National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) recently-released Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) for 2016 reveals some eye-opening insights into reading knowledge and skills in countries around the world. 

What is PIRLS?

According to its website, “PIRLS is an international comparative assessment that measures student learning in reading.” In evaluating the context in which learning occurs in addition to assessing knowledge and skills, PIRLS -- which is administered every five years -- also “provides each country with a rich source of information on the factors influencing reading achievement.”

Falling Behind

The US came up short this year with reading comprehension levels which have flatlined over the past five years. In the meantime, other countries have not only caught up, but have surpassed the US in the rankings. As a result, the US dropped from fourth place to 16th place between 2011 and 2016.

Saig Peggy Carr, acting commissioner for NCES, "We seem to be declining as other education systems make larger gains on assessments. Countries that were our peers have surpassed us while some that used to do worse than us are now our peers,” as reported by U.S. News & World Report. 

Surging Ahead

Which begs the question: Which education systems came out on top? Moscow City, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Hong Kong and Ireland.

Those that fared well where the US fell short, meanwhile, included Ireland, Northern Ireland, Chinese Taipei and England -- all of which were previously on par with the US but outpaced it in 2016. At the same time, students from Poland and Norway came from behind in 2011 to score higher than the US in 2016. Also of note? While Moscow City and Latvia did not participate in the 2011 PIRLS, their scores also topped US results.

It’s not all bad news for the US, though. American students did excel on a new portion of the test designed to measure online comprehension. Continued Carr, “This is particularly relevant as young Americans are relying on online resources for news and their main resource for other work.”

Learn more about studying elementary education.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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