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Chile (above) and Honduras are the only Latin American countries that participate in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).  (Photo: Chile's Education Ministry)
Monday, March 18, 2013

Education: Latin America Needs Rankings

Latin America needs to participate in all international education rankings.



It has become such a habit that it is hardly news to report it again – a number of Asian countries are yet again on the top of another education ranking. This time, it’s the mathematics and science rankings for fourth and eighth grade. Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Japan all outperformed the remaining countries in both categories. This was the result of the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), released last December, which proved again what we all already know. However, it also highlighted a few that we did not.


Every four years since 1995, the TIMSS has been conducting assessments in mathematics and science at the fourth and eighth grade levels. In 2011, seventy four educational systems participated, including countries, states and sub-national entities, like Hong Kong or Dubai. This time, TIMSS joined forces with the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, PIRLS, which is also performed every five years, and provides information about reading achievement in fourth grade.


Both tests are conducted by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a coalition of research institutions and government research agencies related to education, and they sample more than 600,000 students around the world.


Though they ranked among the lowest in the two studies, only two Latin-American countries, Chile and Honduras, agreed to participate. It was the first experience for Honduras, which had not participated in any international assessment since 1997, and the third for Chile, which takes part regularly in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests and usually outperforms its neighbors in the region. Educational authorities in Honduras highlighted the importance of participating in these initiatives to measure the quality of its educational system as well as to provide an opportunity to make adjustments in the future. It’s a lesson the rest of Latin America should pay close attention to.


The report shows that in the United States, fourth-graders scored higher than four years ago, but that the gap between the US and the top performing countries is getting wider, in particular among eight graders. Equally as important – and worrying – the report shows sharp inequality between states with regards to access to quality education. Eighth graders in Minnesota and Massachusetts scored like Asian students but others, in places like California and Alabama, scored much lower than the national average.


Inequality is even more apparent when comparing poverty indicators and achievement results. The report measures low-income schools by looking at the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Schools with 75 percent of students under those conditions – which are also disproportionately minority – performed below the US national average, but also well below the international average. This adds to the outgoing current debate in the United States about the achievement gap between white and minority students.


The TIMMS test admittedly doesn’t assess the entire education performance of a country, but it does point to some very interesting relationships. For example, the report shows that “more countries demonstrate relative strength in knowing mathematics than in applied reasoning.” In fact, cognitive skills like reasoning – so-called “21st century” skills – is key to progress in professional life but is usually left out of international evaluations due to the complexity of measuring it.


Another interesting relationship, increasingly accepted among both academics and practitioners, is that “literary activities during the preschool years can have beneficial effects on children’s later acquisition of numeracy skills.” Evidence continues to mount that early childhood development is incredibly crucial for developing cognitive skills, and is thus fundamental to success in later years of education. Crucially, early development not only refers to formal education but also to nutrition, health, and emotionally stability and support, meaning that poverty and conflict in home life is disastrous for educational attainment later in life. The report shows, for instance, a clear link between student success and supportive home backgrounds and schools with motivating teachers.


TIMSS, like the PISA assessments and other similar evaluations, are important for comparing the educational situations of countries and regions, as they create points of reference and benchmarks. Unfortunately, however, they don’t say much about lessons learnt or policies that governments should promote in order to improve their results. As Brookings senior fellow Tom Loveless says, “these kinds of tests are very good at telling us who’s ahead in the race. They don’t have a lot to say about causes or why countries are where they are.” That is where there is still much work to be done.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for

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