France Pulls Out Of Literacy Survey After Peeking At Results

SATURDAY, DEC. 9, 1995

France was one of eight nations examined in an international survey of adult literacy. It was not among the seven in the report released this week.

France had survey organizers remove all mention of its scores after learning it ranked near the bottom.

The results, embarrassing to a country that considers itself a bastion of culture and enlightenment, reportedly showed that 40 percent of French adults lacked functional literacy - a rate twice as high as in the United States and ahead of only Poland.

The survey by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was released on Wednesday without the French results - or any indication they had been compiled.

The next day, the leftist Paris newspaper Liberation exposed the cover-up.

The newspaper cited unidentified sources as saying the results would have shown 40 percent of French adults lacked basic literacy skills. The government confirmed that it asked to be removed from the survey, but wouldn’t confirm the results.

Claude Torrecinna, an Education Ministry spokesman, said Friday that France pulled out “because it wasn’t an exhaustive survey. The results didn’t offer satisfying degrees of comparison among the different countries.”

Asked whether a poor showing had anything to do with the change of heart, Torrecinna said: “Oh, that’s not what I’m going to tell you.”

Albert Tuijnman, one of the survey organizers, suggested that the reason France pulled out was because it was embarrassed by the results.

“The French were extremely supportive of the survey from the start,” he said. “They never questioned the method or approach.”

But on Oct. 17, two weeks after learning of the results, France asked to be withdrawn. Survey officials spent a week meticulously excising all references to France from the 200-page document.

The final study, titled “Literacy, Society and Economy,” sampled 1,500 to 1,800 adults in seven countries. It went beyond measuring reading ability to seeking out how well people in different countries perform reading tasks that are relevant to their daily lives and performance on the job.

Tasks ranged from reading a bus map to understanding a chart depicting the nutritional value of various foods.

The study didn’t rank the countries, but Tuijnman compiled the figures and made his own ranking: Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, the United States and Poland.

About 7.5 percent of Swedes lacked literacy, as did 20 percent of Americans and 42 percent of Poles, the survey indicated. Had France been included, it would have been second-to-last.

Tuijnman said France’s showing wasn’t all bad: It ranked first in the 16-24 age group, an indication of high-quality schools. “The French come out of the education system very high, but the problem is among older age groups,” he said.


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