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Educational attainment and competencies


Traditionally the level of education in a country’s population or labour force was measured by the average year of schooling that is educational attainment. There is now a recognition that the number of years completed has little relationship to the level of knowledge and competencies or educational achievement. Hanushek and Woessmann observe: "Who would sensibly assume that the average student in a school in Ghana or Peru would gain the same amount of knowledge in any year of schooling as the average student in a school in Finland or Korea? Still, using the quantitative measure of years of schooling does exactly that... Thus, rather than counting how long students have sat in school, it seems crucial to focus on how much students have learned while in school". International tests clearly show that students with the same number of years of education perform radically different not only across different regions and countries but also across different regions and schools in the same country. The divergence between education attainment and education achievement is more serious in developing countries than in developed countries as illustrated in the following example. "

An example of a basic test question from one of the international achievement tests can, perhaps better than anything, illustrates the scope of the problem in developing countries. One question asked to 8th graders in TIMSS 2003 was: "Alice ran a race in 49.86 seconds. Betty ran the same race in 52.30 seconds. How much longer did it take Betty to run the race than Alice? (a) 2.44 seconds (b) 2.54 seconds (c) 3.56 seconds (d) 3.76 seconds." While 88% of 8th-grade students in Singapore, 80% in Hungary, and 74% in the United States got the correct answer (a), only 19% of students in 8th grade in Saudi Arabia, 29% in South Africa, and 32% in Ghana got the correct answer. Random guessing would have yielded 25% correct on average." Hanushek and Woessmann conclude that "In many developing countries, the share of any cohort that completes lower secondary education and passes at least a low benchmark of basic literacy in cognitive skills is below one person in ten. Thus, the education deficits in developing countries seem even larger than generally appreciated.”

Reference: The Role of School Improvement in Economic Development, Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, PEPG, January 2007.

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