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In late February when President Barack Obama selected Carla Hayden, the head of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, to run the Library of Congress, he lauded her commitment to boosting the community’s use of the facility and providing patrons with greater access to computers. Hayden’s focus might also get a thumbs-up from the authors of a new study that ranks 61 countries from most to least literate.
Indeed, the study led by John W. Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University, examined several factors, including Internet and library resources, newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, years of schooling, and literacy scores on standardized tests. According to those criteria, Finland—which is known for its high-performing education system—is the world’s most literate nation.
Miller has spent the past 40 years studying literacy and in 2003 he teamed up with the university’s Center for Public Policy and Social Research to produce an annual report, America’s Most Literate Cities. With 781 million illiterate people around the globe, according to the United Nations, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Miller and his team broadened their lens beyond the United States.
“The factors we examine present a complex and nuanced portrait of a nation’s cultural vitality,” said Miller in a statement. “And what the rankings strongly suggest and world literacy demonstrates is that these kinds of literate behaviors are critical to the success of individuals and nations in the knowledge-based economies that define our global future.”
Miller’s team set out to analyze data for 200 countries but was only able to find reliable information for the 61 included in the study. No nation from central Africa is included. Other Nordic countries—Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden—round out the top five spots in the ranking because “their monolithic culture values reading,” said Miller. Meanwhile, the United States came in seventh in the study. Botswana ranked last, while Colombia, Morocco, Thailand, and Indonesia rounded out the bottom five.
The study is the first of its kind to weave together data on behavioral factors that indicate literacy—such as the newspaper circulation—with reading scores from standardized tests. Miller and his team analyzed data from assessments such as the triennial Programme for International Student Assessment test, the most highly regarded international standardized exam in the world. “The Pacific Rim countries, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and China, would top the list if test performance was the only measure,” said Miller. However, “when factors such as library size and accessibility are added in, the Pacific Rim nations drop dramatically,” he said.
The results of a PDK/Gallup poll last year found that 64 percent of Americans believe there is too much standardized testing at their local schools, so there are likely to be critics of this data being included. But according to Miller, how well students perform on a standardized test may not be the best indication of whether they’re well educated or will be inquisitive, lifelong readers. The researchers found that “there is no meaningful correlation between years of compulsory schooling and educational expenditures on the one hand and test scores on the other,” said Miller.