U.S. students saw their scores fall on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study exam. (iStock)

The United States tumbled in international rankings released Tuesday of reading skills among fourth-graders, raising warning flags about students’ ability to compete with international peers.

The decline was especially precipitous for the lowest-performing students, a finding that suggests widening disparities in the U.S. education system.

The United States has traditionally performed well on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, an assessment given to fourth-graders in schools around the world every five years. In 2016, however, the average score in the United States dropped to 549 out of 1,000, compared to 556 in 2011. The country’s ranking fell from fifth in the world in 2011 to 13th, with 12 education systems outscoring the United States by statistically significant margins. Three other countries roughly tied with the United States; they  scored higher, but the differences were not ­notable.

“We seem to be declining as other education systems record larger gains on the assessment,” Peggy G. Carr, acting commissioner for the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, said during a news conference Friday. “This is a trend we’ve seen on other international assessments in which the U.S. participates.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos weighed in on the scores in a tweet Tuesday: “Our students can’t move ahead – in school or in life – if they’re falling behind in reading. We must do better for students, parents & educators. We must #RethinkSchool,” she wrote. DeVos’s visited several charter and private schools in the fall on a tour she dubbed “Rethink School.”

The international exam was given to 4,400 U.S. fourth-graders who composed a nationally representative sample. The United States was outscored by countries and school systems that typically score well on international assessments, with Russia, Singapore and Hong Kong topping the list. But it was also surpassed by Latvia, one of the poorest countries in the European Union. Meanwhile, Poland and Norway leapfrogged ahead of the United States.

The report adds to a worrisome body of evidence that academic achievement is stagnant or slipping among U.S. schoolchildren. Fourth-graders and eighth-graders continued to lag behind their counterparts in Asian countries in math and science, according to another international exam administered in 2015. That same year, high school seniors showed unchanged results in reading and slipping scores in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam given every two years. Reading scores on that test for fourth-graders remained unchanged and dropped for eighth-graders.

“This is kind of an international confirmation that something may be going on in the United States where our academic performance — which, generally speaking, was going upward — may have stopped,” said Tom Loveless, a nonresident senior fellow who studies education at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.

Carr noted that the worst-performing students posted the largest losses on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study test, suggesting U.S. schools should do more to improve achievement among their most challenged students. The average score for the bottom 25 percent of students fell from 510 to 501 points from 2011 to 2016.

“Other education systems seem to be doing a better job of moving students from lower levels of achievement to higher levels of achievement,” Carr said.


Students in schools with higher free- and reduced-lunch rates, a rough proxy for poverty, also performed worse than the average. Black and Hispanic students lagged behind the national average, while Asian students outperformed all other groups.

Martin West, an education professor at Harvard University, said the results are disappointing, particularly because they may show that efforts to improve educational outcomes for the most challenged students are not paying off.

“It’s certainly not the pattern that we want to see given how much emphasis we’ve placed in this country on trying to improve the bottom of the distribution,” West said. “We know that American education faces challenges with respect to its overall competitiveness to other countries and with respect to inequality within the United States. This report just highlights the need to start making progress on both fronts.”

It is unclear what is driving the trend. West suggested the Great Recession, which plunged many families into poverty and forced states to slash education budgets, may have contributed. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank, found that state per-student spending declined in 29 states from 2008 to 2015 when accounting for inflation.

“We know it affected families directly in terms of their economic health and also had indirect effects on school systems that could have affected students in a wide variety of ways,” West said.

The report had at least one silver lining: Students in the United States fared far better on an Internet-based version of the assessment that tested their ability to process information online. U.S. students placed fourth out of the 16 education systems that participated.