Socioeconomic Background—Since the Coleman report,33 there has been sustained interest in how the socioeconomic composition of the student body is related to individual student achievement.34,35,36 There is evidence that students from disadvantaged backgrounds may have higher achievement if they attend schools where the majority of students are from advantaged backgrounds. Some have attributed this association to peer effects—observing a strong student achievement relationship between classmates.37The higher achievement for students in socioeconomically advantaged schools also may be partially explained by such schools having better facilities and instructional materials. Additionally, in some countries, schools with high proportions of disadvantaged students have difficulty attracting highly qualified teachers.38,39 PIRLS routinely collects information from schools about the socioeconomic composition of their student body, including the percentages of students from economically disadvantaged homes and from economically affluent homes.
Languages Spoken in the School—Schools where many students speak a language other than the primary language of instruction may need to have policies and resources that provide extra support for these students. Since 2001, PIRLS has asked principals to indicate the percentage of students in their school who have the language of the PIRLS assessment as their native language. In the majority of past PIRLS assessments, academic achievement was higher in schools where there was a higher percentage of students who speak the language of instruction as their native language.
Literacy Skills of Entering Student Body—Preprimary education as well as learning experiences in the home play important roles in promoting students’ literacy skills in preparation for primary school. Students who enter the first grade well-equipped with literacy skills have a stronger foundation for formal reading instruction. Since 2001, PIRLS has collected data on student literacy skills upon entering primary school. The Schools Where Students Enter the Primary Grades with Early Literacy Skills scale was developed in PIRLS 2011 to determine the percentage of students who enter schools with literacy skills based on principals’ reports. Skills in the scale include whether students can recognize most of the letters of the alphabet, read some words, and write letters of the alphabet. Similarly, as described under Home Contexts, parents also are asked to report on their child’s early literacy skills through the Could Do Early Literacy Tasks When Beginning Primary School scale.
Adequate working conditions and facilities as well as sufficient instructional resources are important for maintaining a favorable learning environment in schools.40 Although “adequacy” in terms of resources can be relative, the extent and quality of school resources have been shown to be critical for quality instruction.41,42,43,44 Based on principals’ perceptions of school resource shortages that affect the school’s capacity to provide instruction, PIRLS results since 2001 have consistently indicated that students in well-resourced schools generally have higher achievement than those in schools with resource shortages. PIRLS 2001 began collecting data on general school needs such as school supplies, adequate school buildings, and instructional space. In later cycles, PIRLS also asked about specific shortages affecting reading instruction such as library resources and educational software/applications (apps). Principals’ reports about school resource shortages are summarized by the Instruction Affected by Reading Resource Shortages scale.
School resources also include having computers or tablets available for students for learning purposes. PIRLS regularly creates a student-to-computer ratio for schools. In PIRLS 2016, students in schools with available computers had higher achievement than students in schools with no computers.
The variety and richness of the reading material available to students form the core of students’ reading experience in school. Schools with a well-resourced library or multi-media center may be well-positioned to promote student reading. Research has shown that students use the library when there are books that interest them; therefore, ensuring that there is a variety of current reading materials that would be of interest to the students at each grade is essential to promoting reading achievement.45 Since 2001, PIRLS has collected information on school libraries, asking principals whether their schools have a library and for the number of books in the library. Because libraries also are becoming multi-media centers, students also can seek information on subjects of interest through access to ebooks, digital periodicals, and online resources. In 2016, PIRLS began gathering school information on the availability of digital learning resources.
While school libraries are common in most countries, some countries have moved toward classroom libraries, as discussed under Classroom Reading Instruction.
Principals act as leaders in schools by overseeing school staff, students, and the school environment. Research has shown that strong principal leadership can foster student achievement by creating an atmosphere of collective efficacy through a positive school climate and trust among teachers.46,47 Recognizing the crucial role school principals play and the importance of highly trained and well-prepared principals, PIRLS 2016 began collecting data on country requirements to become a principal as well as principals’ educational background, including their highest level of formal education and qualifications in educational leadership.
Principals’ years of experience can contribute to their strength of leadership. PIRLS 2016 began asking principals how many years they have been a principal. Because rapid turnover can lead to dips in student achievement,48,49 principals also are asked how many years they have been a principal in their current school.
PIRLS provides data about school size and school urbanicity because these characteristics can impact student learning. Schools vary in the size of student enrollment and can be located in very different geographical areas (e.g., urban, suburban, rural). An advantage of small schools is that they can provide a more intimate learning environment, allowing for more adult support for students through meaningful staff and student relationships and individualized learning.50 However, smaller schools also may have less supportive infrastructure such as libraries, laboratories, and gymnasia. Depending on the country, schools in urban areas may have access to more resources (e.g., museums, libraries, bookstores) than schools in rural areas.