Students in Alberta outperformed several other Canadian provinces in reading scores during pandemic

According to an assessment of the reading level of 400,000 students from more than 55 countries, most students, including those in several Canadian provinces, reached international benchmarks despite the COVID-19 pandemic — but some declining trends show that there was an impact.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2021 (PIRLS) results were released earlier this week, the fifth assessment cycle marking 20 years of trends.

A total of 57 countries participated. Although Canada did not participate nationally, several provinces took part: Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.

All Canadian provinces had a higher average reading achievement at the Grade 4 reading level than the median of 500 points on the PIRLS scale.

But when the report looked at trends in reading scores over time, they found that students scores’ during the pandemic are part of a long-term downward trend in some regions.

The average reading score for fourth grade students in Alberta went from 560 in 2006 to 548 in 2011, and then down further to 539 in 2021.

In British Columbia, the average score fell from 558 in 2006 to 535 in 2021.

Most countries and regions assessed saw a downward trend during the pandemic, with only Turkiye, Singapore, Oman, Hong Kong, France, Egypt and Cyprus recording increases in 2021 compared to the next most recent year of data.

Quebec was one of the exceptions, with its reading scores continuing a long-term upward trend from 533 in 2006 to 547 in 2016 to 551 in 2021.

The report notes that while the majority of regions assessed students on time at the end of fourth grade, some had a delayed assessment, including Quebec, and assessed students at the beginning of the fifth grade. This gave those students more time than those in other regions, meaning their results may be skewed a little higher.

In some areas, such as Russia and Slovenia, a long-term upward trend of reading scores improving was disrupted by the pandemic, with scores abruptly dropping in 2021 after years of increases.

When parents were surveyed as part of the study, they reported that staying home from school due to the pandemic negatively impacted learning for two-thirds of the students.


However, the overall scores showed that students are still largely clearing international benchmarks.

The assessment looked at the percentage of students from each region that were achieving the low, intermediate, high and advanced benchmarks. These benchmarks represent “increasingly demanding reading comprehension kills and strategies,” the report said.

In most countries, 85 per cent of students were able to reach the low international benchmark, meaning they were able to read straightforward texts, while more than one-third of students in most countries were able to reach the high benchmark, signalling they could read more complicated works.

“Tremendous efforts by the PIRLS 2021 countries overcame the many obstacles of conducting a school-based assessment during the pandemic,” Dr. Dirk Hastedt, IEA executive director, said in a press release. “Nearly half of the students attended schools where normal operations were disrupted for eight weeks or more.”

Canadian provinces outperformed the median score in almost all categories. Nearly half the students achieved the high benchmark in Alberta and British Columbia, while more than half the students achieved it in Quebec. In Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia, 12 per cent of students hit the most advanced benchmark.

Quebec also had 99 per cent of students clear the low benchmark and 88 per cent hit the intermediate one.

When the overall reading scores of countries and regions were compared to each other, the scores of students assessed at the end of fourth grade in Singapore outperformed all other countries or regions.

Out of the Canadian provinces that participated, Alberta scored the highest, with its average reading score at the fourth grade level significantly higher than 28 other countries, and only significantly lower than six countries or regions.

British Columbia scored significantly higher than 25 other countries, while Newfoundland and Labrador scored significantly higher than 20 other countries. Quebec was not included in this specific metric. 


Across nearly all countries and regions, girls performed statistically higher than boys did. This trend was also seen in Canadian provinces, with the largest difference being in Alberta, where girls scored, on average, around 15 points higher on the PIRLS reading scale compared to boys. The smallest difference was Quebec, where girls scored 11 points higher than boys on average.

Socio-economic status also was correlated with reading scores, with students of a higher income home scoring higher than those of lower socio-economic standing.

This difference was largest in Alberta, where students of the lowest socio-economic status scored around 75 points lower on the PIRLS scale than those of the highest socio-economic standing.

Other factors that appeared to affect students’ scores included whether their parents liked reading and whether or not they had done early literacy activities before primary school, underlining the importance of home support.

Researchers also asked students to report on how many minutes they spent per school day using a digital device such as a tablet or computer to find and read information, and then filtered their reading scores through this.

Students who reported they spent “no time” on digital devices had the lowest reading scores, while students who reported spending more than 30 minutes per school day had the second lowest. Students who spent 30 minutes or less per school day had the highest reading scores in general.

The report provides insight into how students performed during the pandemic, showing that while they are still achieving benchmarks, there are declines that could be addressed, researchers say.

“By gathering this information, we can better understand the daily challenges faced by students and educators in times of crises, and work towards solutions to support teaching and learning,” Matthias von Davier, one of the directors of the assessment, said in the release.

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