How far from the tree does the leaf fall?

by Antonio Villar
Thomas J. Alexander Fellow & Universidad Pablo de Olavide

High and Low performers in advantaged and disadvantaged students (OECD, PISA 2012 Results)

Equality of opportunity is a lofty ideal, but some societies get closer to achieving it than others. Regarding compulsory education, results from PISA show that socio-economically disadvantaged students in the OECD have much higher chances of being low performers than their socio-economically advantaged peers. And also, that they have much lower chances of being high performers.

PISA provides information on the competences acquired by 15-year-old students in some 65 countries and large economies. Those competences are classified into 6 different levels of proficiency, each one adding new competencies. Students in levels 5 and 6 are considered to be the high performers whereas those below Level 2 are regarded as the low performers. Level 2 is viewed as the baseline level concerning future outcomes in the labour market and social life. PISA also provides rich information on family characteristics of students allowing one to analyse their relationship.

On average, across the OECD, almost 40% of students coming from disadvantaged families do not reach the baseline level of proficiency and less than 5% achieve the highest levels. The opposite is true for students coming from advantaged families: less than 10% do not reach the baseline level, while 25% do achieve the highest levels of proficiency.

In other words, disadvantaged students are four times more likely to have competencies that put them at risk for their future participation in the labour market and society more broadly. In contrast, advantaged students are five times more likely than their disadvantaged peers to enjoy competencies that give them much better chances for the future.

The ratio between low performers in disadvantaged and advantaged students can be regarded as a rough measure of discrimination “from below”, in an educational system. Similarly, the ratio between high performers in advantaged and disadvantaged students can be regarded as a measure of discrimination “from above”.

The degree of discrimination by socio-economic status varies substantially between the OECD countries. Moreover, the type of discrimination, from below or from above, turns out to be very different within countries. In Iceland, Korea and Norway, the results of advantaged and disadvantaged students are much closer than the OECD average, both for high and low performers. That is, those countries are doing much better than the average OECD country regarding equality of opportunity. The opposite happens in the case of Denmark, France, Hungary and Portugal, where both types of discrimination are much higher than the average OECD.

Discrimination from above turns out to be extreme in the cases of Chile and Greece, with values of 62 and 30 times for those students coming from advantaged families. Mexico, Luxembourg, Israel, the Slovak Republic and Turkey also present high values for this type of discrimination. The contrary happens in Canada, Estonia and Finland, where discrimination from above is much smaller than in the OECD. Chile, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Sweden and Turkey, present very low values of discrimination “from below”. The contrary happens for Belgium, Ireland and Poland.

These data show that equality of opportunity in compulsory education is still an issue in the OECD. There are substantial differences between countries, so that the country in which a child is educated matters a lot. Moreover, socio-economic conditions still play a very relevant role in educational achievements. This role is very different among OECD countries both regarding its intensity and in the way it affects high and low performers.

How Bad Is Being Poor for Educational Performance?  A Message from PISA 2012, by Antonio Villar 
OECD Thomas J. Alexander Fellowship: current call for research proposals closes 23 May 2016.
Chart source: © OECD


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