Spain has suffered a significant setback in the reading comprehension of their students. Children in fourth grade, aged nine and ten, have lost seven points in the PIRLS international assessment, whose 2021 edition was published this Tuesday, to 521. The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) , the entity with offices in Amsterdam and Hamburg that performs the test every five years, calculates that 40 points in reading comprehension are approximately equivalent to a school year, so the seven points lost by Spain come to represent half a quarter. In the previous edition, held in 2016, the country advanced 15 points compared to the previous one.
The result is bad (the people in charge of the IEA describe the Spanish setback as statistically “significant”). But given the circumstances surrounding the test, carried out in the midst of the covid pandemic, it could have been worse. The countries around Spain with comparable data ―that is, excluding those States that due to the coronavirus delayed the collection of information and evaluated the children later, in fifth grade― generally recorded higher losses: 8 points in Portugal, 11 in Italy and Sweden, 13 in Germany, 17 in Finland, 18 in the Netherlands, 20 in Norway, 22 in Slovenia or 32 in South Africa. Those responsible for the IEA have found a consistent relationship between the number of weeks that schools were closed and the impact on children’s reading ability. In other words, the relatively quick reopening of schools in Spain, compared to that of other countries, prevented a major disaster.
Combining the results of PIRLS (acronym in English for the International Study of Progress in Reading Comprehension) with those published last year by the OECD on the duration of school closures, the Spanish Ministry of Education concludes that the 45 days of general school closure decreed in 2020 they can be considered the cause of almost five of the reading comprehension points lost. It must be remembered that during the following months, students were also affected by partial closures, although limited; The bubble groups designed under the mandate of the then Minister of Education Isabel Celaá managed to limit the confinements to specific classes instead of affecting entire schools.
The IEA classification —an international organization made up of official evaluation agencies and public and private research organizations in educational matters, from more than 60 countries, with a particularly prominent role for Boston College— once again places Spain in a position discreet in the international arena. With the reported prevention of the disparity in data collection caused by the coronavirus ―14 of the 57 countries collected the data with children half a year older―, Spain is 12 points below the average for the OECD countries as a whole participants in the test, seven points from the average of the European Union, and very far from the first places.
The best result is obtained by Singapore, with 587 points, which is equivalent to a year and a half ahead of Spain. It is followed by Ireland (577 points, although he took the tests later, when the students were already in fifth grade), Hong Kong (573), and Russia (567). The EU country with data completely comparable to Spain’s that appears highest in the ranking, Finland, obtains 549 points, a difference of just over half a year with Spanish children.
The minor relative bump suffered by Spain as a result of the covid makes it improve relatively compared to many of the countries around it. Their results are so close that, according to the IEA, they no longer have a “significant statistical difference” with those of the Netherlands (527 points) and Germany (524), they surpass Portugal by one point (520), and remain by ahead of France, one of the few countries that despite having collected the data when it was due, experiences a rise, of three points, which does not prevent it from only obtaining 514.
In this edition, PIRLS has evaluated some 400,000 students (10,000 of them Spanish), 380,000 fathers and mothers, 20,000 teachers and those responsible for 13,000 schools. The test examines children’s reading ability to “acquire and use information”, “draw conclusions”, “interpret and integrate ideas” included in texts and other skills. Almost half of the participating countries, including Spain, have carried out the evaluation in a mainly digital format on this occasion, and the IEA hopes to extend it to the rest in 2026. “Spain”, affirms Lucas Gortazar, from EsadeEcPol, “has the disadvantage of which is one of the countries where the youngest are the children who took the test, with 9.9 years, compared to an average of 10.2″.
a homogeneous country
The study reflects, as in previous editions, that Spain has few children in the group of advanced readers, those who achieve more than 625 points in the evaluations, 6% of the total, compared to the 8% average in the EU and the 11% from the OECD. But it also has few students with a very low level, those who do not reach 400 points, 5%, which places it in the community average and one point better than the OECD.
This relative homogeneity is reflected in an even more pronounced way in other of the variables that PIRLS analyzes, and it is probably the feature that best characterizes the reading comprehension of Spanish students. What most influences this ability is the socioeconomic and cultural level of the family. In all the countries analyzed in the study, children from households at the highest level obtain an average of 543 points, 86 more than those from the lowest. They have a little more than two courses ahead of them. The gap is even greater in EU countries such as Sweden (90 points), France and Germany (91 points), or Bulgaria (122). Spain (62) is situated, on the other hand, in the group of countries where the difference is smaller, formed among others by Italy (64 points) and Slovenia (62).
Spanish homogeneity is clearer in the case of gender. In all the countries analysed, girls perform better than boys. The average difference across the 57 PIRLS countries is 18 points, almost half a school year. In Spain it is, on the other hand, only two points, the smallest in the study, so small that the IEA considers that it can actually be said that there is none. Next are the Czech Republic and Israel (four points difference) and Portugal and Malta (six). Of the seven countries with the largest gender gap, where girls are more ahead of boys, six are Arab. Among them are Morocco (33 points) and Saudi Arabia (35). The most unequal in this variable is South Africa, with a difference of 57 points.
Screen Time Notice
PIRLS analyzes other items related to children’s reading level by asking students, parents, principals, and teachers. One of them focuses on how much time students spend each day “searching for and reading information” on computers, tablets and mobile phones to do work on a normal school day. In all the participating countries, those who perform best are those who dedicate less than 30 minutes a day to it. Next are those who dedicate more than half an hour to it. And finally, those who do not spend any time a day. Spain follows the same pattern, with the difference that between those who spend more than 30 minutes a day and those who do not, there is a single point difference in performance in PIRLS. The case of Ireland, the best-ranked EU country (although its students took the exam when they were half a year older) is very striking: those who obtain the best results are those who never use digital devices to search for information (582 points), followed by those who do not. they use less than half an hour a day (580), and far behind are those who spend more than half an hour (565). The IEA mentions some factors that could explain the phenomenon, among them that the greater exposure to the screens can cause children to be “more distracted time”, or that perhaps they spend more time in front of the screens because precisely because of their poor school performance They send them more work.
Children to whom, before starting primary school, their parents have frequently read stories or told stories, or played word games or written with them, have a 26-point advantage (just over half a year) over those who only do. have lived “sometimes” on a nine-item scale measured by PIRLS. In Spain, the percentage of children with whom their parents have never done any of this is negligible, according to what the parents themselves explain, as in almost all countries.
The cuts suffered by a school also act as a predictor of the reading comprehension of its students. Spanish students from centers whose directors state that their school has suffered a certain degree of cuts recently (in Spain none say they have suffered “many cuts”, as happens in other countries) obtain an average of 16 points less than those who claim not to have suffered any cutout.
In Spain, in primary school, there are few discipline problems. 80% of the students attend schools whose directors affirm that there are hardly any, one of the highest percentages in the study (the average stands at 64%). And only 5% go to schools with “moderate and severe” problems. The difference in reading comprehension in these centers is 13 points in Spain and 45 in the average of participating countries.
Being a victim of bullying is also related to reading performance. In Spain, 57% of students say they almost never suffer from it, 30% once a month and 13% weekly. The latter obtain 52 less performance points (they are more than one course behind) than those that are practically never bothered. The impact is even higher in the EU as a whole (59 points).
The students who affirm that they like to read a lot obtain, as might be expected, better results than those who say they do not. Nineteen more points, both in Spain and in the EU average. The gap is even greater, however, between students whose parents say they really like reading and those who say they don’t; it reaches 42 points in Spain, around the average of the participating countries (47 points of difference). In Spain, 59% of girls affirm that they like to read a lot and 8% that they do not. The difference with children, with percentages of 50% and 13% respectively, is moderate, compared to what occurs in the countries as a whole. The percentage of girls who feel safe when reading is only slightly higher than that of boys in Spain, while in the average for countries it reaches six points.
As shown by other international evaluations, Spanish students in PIRLS show a greater feeling of belonging to their school (73%) than the average (56% in the EU). Children with a high sense of belonging achieve 26 points more in reading comprehension (28 community average). And children who go to schools whose principals say the school places a “very high emphasis” on achieving academic success score 23 points higher than those who go to centers whose leaders describe that emphasis as only medium. Finally, 81% of Spanish teachers declare themselves “very satisfied” with their work (well above the EU average, which is 50%). And, in any case, the degree of satisfaction expressed by teachers is not reflected in the reading performance of children.
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