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PISA and Digital Literacy

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November 28, 2016 10:57 am


The advent of high-speed internet, mass search engines, and online databases has transformed the ways in which information is presented, requiring students to be digitally literate to take full advantage of the available resources. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recognizes the significance of this phenomenon, stating, “[s]tudents unable to navigate through a complex digital landscape will no longer be able to participate fully in the economic, social and cultural life around them.”

Therefore, the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which the OECD administers, featured a computer-based reading section. This section differed from the typical paper-and-pencil PISA reading exam in that it emulated situations students would encounter in an online setting, including “navigat[ing] through and across texts by using such tools as hyperlinks, browser button or scrolling.” OECD’s report Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection dictates that top performers in this section show proficiency in certain digital literacy skills, such as “evaluat[ing] information from several sources, assessing the credibility and utility of what they read using criteria that they have generated themselves, … [and] solv[ing] tasks that require the reader to locate information, related to an unfamiliar context, in the presence of ambiguity and without explicit directions.”

Results of PISA’s Computer-Based Reading Assessment  

Analysis of the computer-based reading section from the thirty-two participating countries and economies, including the United States, shows that regardless of socioeconomic status, students who scored higher on the paper-and-pencil PISA reading exam were more likely to perform better on the digital exam as well. OECD explains that the correlation occurs because “students with good reading skills, regardless of their background, have a much easier time finding their way around—and mining the considerable assets of—the Internet.” It becomes more difficult to build digital literacy if students do not first have the foundational reading skills necessary to evaluate source quality or draw inferences from multiple webpages.

Strengthening American Students’ Reading Skills

Given this finding, supporting students’ reading skills must be a priority for U.S. policymakers if public schools hope to prepare students for the digital environment they will encounter in postsecondary education, careers, and life. On the 2012 PISA paper-and-pencil reading exam, American students performed comparably to the OECD average, but fell behind their peers from other developed nations like Canada and Japan who scored higher than the OECD average.

Data from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often described as the Nation’s Report Card, also shows that U.S. students have work to do—more than 60 percent of eighth and twelfth graders each did not meet the “proficient” level for reading. These students lack skills that serve as a foundation to digital literacy, such as “integrat[ing] and interpret[ing] texts to provide main ideas … [and] forming judgments about an author’s perspective … [and] relative strength of [their] claims.” Moreover, average NAEP reading scores have remained stagnant since 1971, as displayed in the graph below from the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (Alliance’s) literacy fact sheet.

The Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy (SRCL) program was a federal pilot discretionary grant awarded to six states that largely succeeded in targeting the weaknesses identified by NAEP reading. Pennsylvania was a particularly effective SRCL grantee, reporting “greater percentages of students across grade levels scoring in the upper quartile and a reduction in the percentage of students scoring in the lowest quartile” on state reading tests, reflecting improvements in reading comprehension. The Alliance’s report, Advancing Adolescent Literacy: Pennsylvania’s Keystones to Opportunity Comprehensive Literacy Program, highlights the state’s unique strategy to improve literacy rates, including providing professional development opportunities for teachers to learn how to incorporate higher-order thinking and technology into literacy instruction.

The Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act, featured in Title II of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), seeks to expand such comprehensive literacy programs to other states. In doing so, LEARN may help more students build the foundational reading skills that underlie digital literacy.

Reading Skills in Conjunction with Access

The Obama administration’s ConnectED Initiative has enabled 20 million more American students to access high-speed broadband internet in their schools since 2013. But while this increase is certainly important to note, OECD writes, “ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading … seems to do more to create equal opportunities … than can be achieved by expanding … access to high-tech devices and services [alone].” Schools and districts must support students’ reading skills and access to technology simultaneously as a student cannot take full advantage of available digital resources without both digital literacy and the necessary technological tools and connections.

PISA Day 2016 further will explore data from the computer-based sections of the 2015 assessment. More information about PISA Day and other related events is available at


Ji Soo Song is a former intern at the Alliance.


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