In Other Countries, Kids in Wealthier Schools Do Better Than Kids in Poorer Schools. Huge Surprise, Right?

Released today, the latest international studies of students in math, science, and reading (TIMMS and PIRLS) actually make interesting reading. You can find the the math report (TIMMS) here and the reading and literacy report here. They are pretty long.

Unfortunately and as usual, the few on-line and printed reports ABOUT the studies seem to be cherry-picking data to find what they want — much like pundits pontificating and bloviating on TV the exact same ‘talking points’, whether there’s any evidence for what they believe or not. I just saw a headline: “More Bad News for US Students.”

At least I try to look at the data itself.

A brief quote from the TIMMS ‘executive summary’, which is as far as I had gotten when I first wrote this yesterday morning:

Home Resources Strongly Related to Mathematics Achievement

Research consistently shows a strong positive relationship between achievement and indicators of socioeconomic status, such as parents’ or caregivers’ level of education. At the fourth and sixth grades, TIMSS used the parents’ reports on the availability of key home resources to create the Home Resources for Learning scale, including parents’ education, parents’ occupation, books in the home, and study supports. Internationally, on average, the 17 percent of students with Many Resources had substantially higher mathematics achievement than the nine percent with Few Resources—a 119-point difference. However, 
almost three-quarters of the fourth grade students (74%) had Some Resources.
At the eighth and ninth grades, TIMSS asked the students themselves about their parents’  education, books in the home, and study supports, with similar results. Internationally, the twelve percent of eighth grade students with Many Resources had the highest average achievement, the two-thirds with Some Resources had the next highest achievement,  and the one-fifth with Few Resources had the lowest average achievement.

Note that this is in ALL of the countries: kids from poorer backgrounds do less well in school, and the inverse: wealthier kids do better in school. All over the world, not just in the USA.


Here are the tables that accompanied that text:



Now that I’ve had a bit more time to look at the data, I see that at the fourth grade, I can look at reported differences between average scores at schools where the principal says the kids come from wealthier families, and average scores at schools where the principal says the students come from more disadvantaged families. It’s one way of estimating what the famous rich-poor achievement gap is like in various nations, but we should be cautious with the data: it all has pretty large standard deviations according to TIMMS itself, meaning that the various bars in this graph are likely to be, in reality, much higher or much lower than this chart (which I made using the data in exhibit 5.3, page 514).

grade 4 rich poor schools gap TIMMS


If this information is accurate, the US has a somewhat larger ‘math poverty’ gap than most other countries, but it’s by no means the worst. And it also shows that lots of other countries actually have similar achievement gaps in 4th grade math between two groups of schools:

Quoting from the report:

… the More Affluent schools had more than one-fourth of their students from affluent home backgrounds and not more than one-fourth from disadvantaged home backgrounds, and the More Disadvantaged schools had the reverse situation. The other schools were “in between.” Internationally, the students were distributed relatively equally across the three types of schools. On average, across countries at the fourth grade, 36 percent of the students attended schools with relatively more affluent students than disadvantaged students, and students in these schools had the highest average achievement (508). At the other end of the range, 30 percent of the students attended schools with relatively more disadvantaged students than affluent students, and students in these schools had the lowest average achievement (470). Although this overall achievement pattern was observed in most countries and benchmarking participants, there was a wide variation among participants in the percentages of students attending the three different economic categories of schools.


  1. The sky isn’t falling,
  2. US schools are neither the best nor the worst in the world.
  3. This data (like most educational dat) is actually quite fuzzy.
  4. All around the world, it appears that wealthier kids these days generally tend to do better in math at the 4th grade than poorer kids.
Published in: on December 12, 2012 at 2:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Inequality, Segregation and Education in America vs. the World

This is an excellent analysis of the PISA results, not written by me. It was published in Valerie Strauss’ column in the Washington Post.

What international test scores really tell us:

Lessons buried in PISA report

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by William J. Mathis of Goshen, Vermont. He is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center.. and a former Vermont superintendent. The views expressed are his own.

By William J. Mathis

For the 27th, government officials have yet again been surprised, shocked and dismayed over the latest international test score rankings. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “We have to see this as a very serious wake-up call.” Former Reagan education official Chester E. Finn Jr. reported that he was “kind of stunned” by the results of the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) results. In hyperbolic overdrive, he compared the results to Pearl Harbor and Sputnik.

The PISA tests were given to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 65 nations and educational systems. Nine had higher average scores in reading, 17 in math, and 12 in science.

While ranking nations on test scores is a pretty sorry way to evaluate education systems, there is simply no reason to expect the results to have been any better than they were the last time we heard from this same chorus of surprised, shocked and dismayed pundits and politicians.

The reason is simple. Federal and state policymakers continue to embrace reforms that have little positive effect (if not downright negative effects) while ignoring reforms that make a difference. Buried within the PISA report is an analysis of educational systems that registered high test scores. Here are some of the less-reported findings:·

*The best performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all children.

· *Students from low socio-economic backgrounds score a year behind their more affluent classmates. However, poorer students who are integrated with their more affluent classmates score strikingly higher. The difference is worth more than a year’s education.

· *In schools where students are required to repeat grades (such as with promotion requirements), the test scores are lower and the achievement gap is larger.

· *Tracking students (“ability grouping”) results in the gap becoming wider. The earlier the practice begins, the greater the gap. Poor children are more frequently shunted into the lower tracks.

· *Systems that transfer weak or disruptive students score lower on tests and on equity. One-third of the differences in national performance can be ascribed to this one factor.

· *Schools that have autonomy over curriculum, finances and assessment score higher.

· *Schools that compete for students (vouchers, charters, etc.) show no achievement score advantage.

· *Private schools do no better once family wealth factors are considered.

· *Students that attended pre-school score higher, even after more than 10 years.

As OECD Paris-based official Michael Davidson said in National Public Radio comments, “One of the striking things is the impact of social background on (U.S.) success.”

Twenty percent of U.S. performance was attributed to social background, which is far higher than in other nations. Davidson went on to point out that the United States just does not distribute financial resources or quality teachers equally. In a related finding, students from single-parent homes score much lower in the United States than they do in other countries. The 23-point difference is almost a year’s lack of growth.

Our Educational Policies

Unfortunately, federal and state policies do little to adopt these factors that other nations have found so successful. Countless finance studies show that funding across our schools is inequitable and inadequate. Federal and state governments vaguely note this concern but actions do not match the rhetoric. Our treatment of economically deprived students is to house them in segregated schools and shunt them into tracked programs.

A number of “get tough” social promotion policies have been adopted in states even though we know they are harmful. Despite a clear research consensus, early education is still politically disputed. Tracking students still remains the national norm even as we know it increases the achievement gap.

As the federal government (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) has become even more top-down and prescriptive, local schools become less autonomous and less like our successful international counterparts. Finally, the push for privatizing public education through charters, tuition tax credits, vouchers and the like does not result in better test scores and has the effect of increasing segregation, and the inequalities that lead to low test scores.

The American Dream

The American dream is that all children have an opportunity to be successful no matter how humble their roots. Thus, the most troubling finding in the PISA results is the lack of “resilience” among our children.

OECD measured resilience by looking at the scores of the least wealthy 25% of students and seeing what proportion of these students have academic scores in the top 25% of countries with similar socio-economic levels. In the highest scoring nations, 70 percent of the students are rated resilient.

The U. S. figure is less than 30%. In a nation which sees the top 1% controlling more than 50% of the nation’s wealth and the collapse of middle class jobs, we face the specter of building a country of social, economic and educational apartheid.

Secretary Duncan calls the PISA scores a serious wake-up call for our economy and “international competitiveness.” But that is merely to misunderstand economics and global competitiveness. Due to our pursuit of ineffective and ill-focused educational and economic reforms , the rude disturbance of our slumbers is the slamming of the door on the American dream.

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