How well do U.S. students read? In this article, Sean Reardon, Rachel Valentino, and Kenneth Shores rely on studies using data from national and international literacy assessments to answer this question. In part, the answer depends on the specific literacy skills assessed. The authors show that almost all U.S. students can "read" by third grade, if reading is defined as proficiency in basic procedural word-reading skills. But reading for comprehension—integrating background knowledge and contextual information to make sense of a text—requires a set of knowledge-based competencies in addition to word-reading skills. By the standards used in various large-scale literacy assessments, only about a third of U.S. students in middle school possess the knowledge-based competencies to "read" in this more comprehensive sense.
This low level of literacy proficiency does not appear to be a result of declining performance over time. Literacy skills of nine-year-olds in the United States have increased modestly over the past forty years, while the skills of thirteen- and seventeen-year-olds have remained relatively flat. Literacy skills vary considerably among students, however. For example, the literacy skills of roughly 10 percent of seventeen-year-olds are at the level of the typical nine-year-old.
This variation is patterned in part by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. Black and Hispanic students enter high school with average literacy skills three years behind those of white and Asian students; students from low-income families enter high school with average literacy skills five years behind those of high-income students. These are gaps that no amount of remedial instruction in high school is likely to eliminate. And while the racial and ethnic disparities are smaller than they were forty to fifty years ago, socioeconomic disparities in literacy skills are growing.
Nor is the low level of literacy skills particularly a U.S. phenomenon. On international comparisons, American students perform modestly above average compared with those in other developed countries (and well above average among a larger set of countries). Moreover, there is no evidence that U.S. students lose ground relative to those in other countries during the middle school years. Thus, although literacy skills in the United States are lower than needed to meet the demands of modern society, the same is true in most other developed countries.