‘Achievement Gap’ Is International Problem, UNICEF Analysis Says

By Rhea R. Borja — December 11, 2002 3 min read
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A new report from UNICEF offers an international look at the “achievement gap.”

The report, “A League Table of Educational Disadvantage in Rich Nations,” is available from UNICEF. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Children in South Korea, Canada, and Finland have a better chance of getting a good education and a lower chance of falling behind than do students in the United States, Germany, and Italy, according to the report by the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Released last month, the study —written by UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Center in Florence, Italy—seeks to give a “big picture” analysis of educational performance in 24 of the world’s industrialized nations. It notes that student achievement is linked closely to students’ family backgrounds.

The study ranks countries by the size of the gap between low achievers and average students. It uses test results in mathematics, science, and literacy from two international surveys: the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, and the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

This latest report is the fourth in a series of UNICEF report cards that investigate the health, education, and well-being of children in member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which represents the world’s leading industrial countries. OECD members have adopted the goal of “allowing each child to reach his or her full educational potential.”

Michael O. Martin, a co-director of the International Study Center at Boston College, which administers the TIMSS project, says the UNICEF report brings a new focus to the TIMSS data.

"[UNICEF] is hoping to draw attention to the fact that even in the richest countries, some kids are left behind,” he said. “And that those kids who are at risk should not be forgotten.”

The percentage of 15-year- olds who couldn’t handle basic reading tasks varied from about 6 percent in South Korea to more than 26 percent in Portugal. For the United States, the proportion of 15-year-olds not achieving basic reading literacy was 18 percent, according to the report.

In math, the United States fared even worse. Almost 40 percent of American 8th graders were unable to use basic math knowledge in “straightforward situations,” the report says, compared with fewer than 12 percent in South Korea and Japan, and 23 percent in Canada. Greece and Portugal ranked at the bottom, with 48 percent and 68 percent, respectively.

Student ‘Trajectory’

In examining disparities within and between countries, the study also posed this question: How far behind are the weakest students allowed to fall?

To find an answer, it ranked countries on the achievement gap between their students at the 5th percentile—the low end of test performance—and the 50th percentile, or the exact middle. The United States was among the nations that ranked near the bottom on that measure, along with Germany, New Zealand, and Belgium. Those countries’ low achievers were approximately five years behind their middle-achieving peers, according to the report.

For the country that did best on that measure, Finland, the gap between the low and middle achievers was about 3.5 years.

Home environment plays a crucial role in children’s education, data cited in the report show. No matter what country, the more educated, career-oriented, and wealthy the parents are, the further their children’s education tends to progress.

The reverse also holds true: The poorer and less educated the parents are, the fewer educational opportunities their children tend to have.

“A family’s social, cultural, and economic status tends to act as a rifle barrel setting an educational trajectory from which it is difficult for a child to escape,” the report says.

For example, German children whose parents have had some higher education are more likely to attend rigorous, college-track schools known as gymnasiums than are children whose parents are less educated, according to the study.

Other data in the report suggest that high per-pupil spending and low pupil-to-teacher ratios don’t necessarily translate into higher student achievement. The high-ranking South Korea, for example, spends about the same amount per student as low-ranking Greece. South Korea, Canada, and Japan have relatively high pupil-to-teacher ratios, yet their students score better overall than students in Greece and Italy, which have lower pupil-to-teacher ratios.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as ‘Achievement Gap’ Is International Problem, UNICEF Analysis Says


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