France has managed to halt the decline in reading comprehension scores of its pupils, but still falls short of the European average, according to the results of the PIRLS 2021 study, the international research program on school reading. This study is carried out every five years, and the results were published on Tuesday, May 16, giving comparative levels of reading and comprehension around the world for schoolchildren in the fourth grade or equivalent level (CM1 in France).
On the “glass half full” side, France is stabilizing after 15 years of decline. It scored 514 points compared to 511 in 2016. Over the same period, the other European Union (EU) countries have seen their scores fall by an average of 11 points. France also significantly reduced the deficit from the EU average, from 28 points in 2016 to 15 points in 2021. And it is above the symbolic international average of 500 points set by PIRLS.
On the “glass half empty” side, France ranked 23rd out of the 37 countries that took the test on time, with a score similar to Malta and Serbia, far behind Singapore (587 points), Hong Kong (573 points), Finland and Poland (549 points). France was 16th out of 19 EU countries participating in the study and failed to return to its levels from 2001 (525 points) and 2011 (520 points).
Progress carried by girls
The PIRLS study, which tested 400,000 students worldwide in 2021 and 2022 (including 5,300 in France) is one of the first to measure the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns on student achievement. Two-thirds of students saw their learning affected by the pandemic. The authors of the survey are conducting additional research to assess the correlation between the number of weeks without school during the pandemic and academic achievement. France’s strategy of keeping schools open, spearheaded by then education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, appears to have paid off. It is among eight countries out of 32 comparable ones that stabilized their results between 2016 and 2021, while 21 are experiencing a decline and only three are seeing an improvement in results.
On reading comprehension, PIRLS assesses much more than simple deciphering and focuses on reading comprehension. Why fourth grade? It is an age considered crucial because students move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” explained Matthias von Davier, one of the study’s coordinators.
The distribution of French pupils’ scores remained stable between 2016 and 2021, with 6% ranking below low, 22% at the low level, 40% at the intermediate level, 27% at the high level and 5% at the advanced level. While the gap with the EU average is narrowing, France still has fewer students with the highest scores and more students with difficulties. And 91 points separate the French students at the lowest level from those at the highest level, “the equivalent of two years of learning,” noted Thierry Rocher, the head of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).
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