Graph of the Day: My contribution to PISA Palooza

With today’s release of PISA data it is once again time for wild punditry, mass condemnation of U.S. public schools and a renewed sense of urgency to ram through ill-conceived, destructive policies that will make our school system even more different from those breaking the curve on PISA.

With that out of the way, here’s my little graphic contribution to what has become affectionately known to edu-pundit class as PISA-Palooza.  Yep… it’s the ol’ poverty as an excuse graph – well, really it’s just the ol’ poverty in the aggregate just so happens to be pretty strongly associated with test scores in the aggregate – graph… but that’s nowhere near as catchy.


PISA Data:

(table M4)

OECD Relative Poverty: Source: Provisional data from OECD Income distribution and poverty database (

Yep – that’s right… relative poverty – or the share of children in families below 50% of median income – is reasonably strongly associated with Math Literacy PISA scores. And this isn’t even a particularly good measure of actual economic deprivation. Rather, it’s the measure commonly used by OECD and readily available. Nonetheless, at the national aggregate, it serves as a pretty strong correlate of national average performance on PISA.

What our little graph tells us – albeit not really that meaningful – is that if we account (albeit poorly) for child poverty, the U.S. is actually beating the odds. Way to go? (but for that really high poverty rate).

Bottom line – economic conditions matter and simple rankings of countries by their PISA scores aren’t particularly insightful (and the above graph only marginally more insightful). Further, comparisons of cities in China to entire nations is a particularly silly approach.

Additional Readings:

Coley, R., Baker, B.D. (2013) Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward. ETS Center for
Research on Human Capital and Education. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service

Baker, B.D., Welner, K.G. (2011) Productivity Research, the U.S. Department of Education, and High‐Quality Evidence. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from‐research


16 thoughts on “Graph of the Day: My contribution to PISA Palooza

  1. Looking at the average scores of U.S. schools with less than 10% free or reduced lunch then:

    U.S. schools are second behind Shanghai in Reading and Science and sixth behind some Chinese Cities, Singapore and Korea.

    As you have pointed out, what pulls down the U.S. scores is when all the students of poverty are included!

  2. Would be interested in your thoughts on the “new performance-based assessment to measure the classroom readiness of teachers” that “promises to transform the preparation and certification of new teachers”. This was highlighted at Ed Week yesterday.

  3. Of course to have that much child poverty in the wealthiest country in the world is the troubling part.

  4. edtpa is an interesting tool, and it may give us some more insight, but it will not be transformative… it is partly a response to attacks on traditional teacher prep programs from “reformers”

  5. So, I take it you are saying “it must be the schools” sarcastically….that Asian students going to the same PA schools score better on the tests than their nonAsian PA counterparts. It would be interesting to see Asian scores broken down by SES, to see if poverty levels affect test scores within this subpopulation.

  6. Looking at data this way, it’s helpful to keep in mind that some of the top performers, where there is currently little poverty, weren’t always in the situation that they are in now. Take for ex. Finland and South Korea. 3-4 decades ago childhood poverty rates there were at a similar level as in the US today. In both countries it was recognized that long-term educational policy planning with a focus on equality would be an effective means to alleviate poverty. What we are seeing in the current data is that that worked. Poverty levels should not be seen as an excuse for poor educational performance, as is all too often the case (I’m talking about the “fix poverty first, then education” folks). Poverty is a call to action on the education front. With deliberate, long-term planning, education can be a tool to fight poverty and countries like Finland and South Korea are demonstrative of that. (See for ex.

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