By Jennifer Craw

When the results from the PISA 2012 assessment were unveiled on December 3, along with the highly awaited country rankings for mathematics, reading and science, the results offered important insight into the link between students’ socio-economic status and their performance in the participating countries and regions that take the PISA test.  While some education systems, such as the United States, show a worrying link between low socio-economic status and low student performance, other systems have found ways to bolster the performance of their most at-risk students so that a large portion of their most disadvantaged students score very well on all three PISA subjects.  PISA calls such students, who display high levels of academic achievement despite disadvantaged backgrounds, “resilient students.”  This month’s Statistic takes a look at how disadvantaged students perform in the top performing countries and education systems on PISA 2012.

One of the biggest fallacies leveled against PISA by its critics in the United States and in other widely diverse jurisdictions is that the assessment does not take into account the high levels of poverty and diversity in countries like the U.S.  These critics argue that because the sample of students from the U.S. includes more socio-economically disadvantaged students than do the samples from the top performers, comparison with those systems is simply not fair.  In reality, however, many education systems that outperform the U.S. also have higher rates of socio-economically disadvantaged students.  OECD has developed the PISA Index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status (ESCS) to determine which students come from low socio-economic backgrounds.  The ESCS takes into account the following variables:

  • The International Socio-Economic Index of Occupational Status (ISEI)
  • The highest level of education of the student’s parents, converted into years of schooling
  • The PISA index of family wealth
  • The PISA index of home educational resources
  • The PISA index of possessions related to “classical” culture in the family home

The chart below compares the percent of all students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds from the fifteen top performing education systems on PISA 2012 and the U.S., based on PISA’s ESCS.


The percent of students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds in the U.S. is 13.4 percent, below the OECD average of 15.4 percent.  Meanwhile, all of the other countries on the chart above outperformed the United States in mathematics for PISA 2012 and many have much higher proportions of disadvantaged students.  Hong Kong, Macao-China, Shanghai, and Chinese Taipei ranked among the top five for mathematics on PISA 2012, yet Shanghai has more than 20 percent of students with disadvantaged backgrounds and Hong Kong and Macao-China have proportions of disadvantaged students above 40 percent.  Vietnam outperformed the United States on all three subject areas—reading, math and science—with almost 80% of its sample of students coming from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.  Clearly the contention that the U.S. does poorly on PISA due to a higher proportion of disadvantaged students does not hold up.

But no less interesting than the issue of which countries have higher proportions of disadvantaged students is the question of how disadvantaged students from these countries perform on PISA.  The 2012 PISA report takes a look at what PISA calls “resilient students”, defined as those students who, though they are in the most disadvantaged quartile of students in their country, nevertheless score in the top quarter on the PISA assessments of student achievement.   The following chart shows the percent of disadvantaged students, those in the lowest quartile for socio-economic status, from each country or economy who are resilient, meaning they scored within the top quarter of all students on PISA 2012.  The chart also shows disadvantaged students who are low-performers, meaning they scored within the bottom quarter of all students on PISA 2012



In the above chart, the U.S. has a smaller proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are able to perform well on PISA than do any of the top performing systems, with only 5.2 percent of disadvantaged U.S. students qualifying as resilient.  However, more than 15 percent of disadvantaged students from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macao, Vietnam, and Singapore scored in the top quartile on PISA 2012.  European nations like Switzerland, Estonia, the Netherlands, Poland and Finland saw resilient student rates above 8 percent.  Conversely, the U.S. has the highest rate of disadvantaged students who performed poorly on PISA, with 5.6 percent scoring in the bottom quartile.  This is not only above the OECD average of 4.8 percent, but also above the rates of low-achieving disadvantaged students from each of the top performing education systems on PISA 2012.  In Shanghai and Vietnam only .4 percent of disadvantaged students scored in the lowest quartile.  In fact, while the top performing education systems managed to have more resilient students than low-achievers among disadvantaged students, the U.S. has a slightly higher proportion of low-achievers than resilient students among its sample.

In looking to the top performing education systems on PISA 2012 for strategies to improve the education systems, one clear lesson is that the top countries do not ignore their hardest to educate students.  On the contrary, top-performing systems like Shanghai, Singapore, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have found ways to support their most socio-economically disadvantaged students to the point that these at-risk students are more likely to achieve at high levels academically than they are to perform poorly.  Meanwhile, the U.S., with a lower rate of disadvantaged students than many of the top-performing education systems, struggles to support its most at-risk students.  To read more about what the U.S. can learn from the data coming out of PISA 2012, visit Marc Tucker’s blog, Top Performers, on