Variation in the Relationship Between Nonschool Factors and Student Achievement on International Assessments

Gillian Hampden-Thompson
Jamie S. Johnston

Over the past 20 years, findings from international assessment studies have influenced U.S. educational policy debates.1 Each wave of results has received significant media attention, public interest, and criticism. The critics have argued that methodological incompatibilities2 and school organizational differences between countries prevent fair comparisons of achievement outcomes across the countries participating in the assessments (Bracey 1998; Rotberg 1990, 1995, 1998). In addition, it has been suggested that systems of education are bound by countries’ national cultures (Purves 1987), and this has implications for the interpretation of achievement cross nationally.3

A number of researchers have attempted to address these concerns (Baker 1993, 1997; Boe and Shin 2005; National Research Council 2002; Stedman 1994; Suter 2000; Westbury 1992, 1993). However, their response has centered exclusively on the methodological issues concerning the design of these assessments and school-related factors (e.g., curriculum, school funding, and teacher qualifications) between countries, while differences in nonschool factors (e.g., students’ socioeconomic and immigrant status) between countries have received less attention (for exception, see Buchmann 2002).

As is well known, students’ nonschool factors are key predictors of children’s educational achievement. Equality of Educational Opportunity and Children and Their Primary Schools (Coleman et al. 1966; Plowden 1967), both published in the 1960s, showed that much, but not all, of the variation in achievement scores between students could be accounted for by nonschool factors. Since this time, a substantial amount of research has reinforced this finding (Blau and Duncan 1967; Entwisle and Alexander 1993; Hout 1988; Jencks et al. 1979). The main purpose of this Statistics in Brief is to use NCES data to describe differences in nonschool factors that are related to achievement, which can inform the discussion about the concern that differences between countries on nonschool factors hinder cross-national comparisons of achievement outcomes.

To accomplish this objective, this report considers six nonschool factors that are related to student achievement. These are the highest level of education attained by either of the students’ parents; the highest occupational status of either of the students’ parents; the number of books that students have access to in the home; whether students speak the native language of the country at home; students’ immigrant status; and students’ family structure.4 These six nonschool factors can be categorized into two distinct groups: the first three factors (parents’ educational level, parents’ occupational status, and number of books in the home) are used to represent students’ socioeconomic status (SES) characteristics; the last three factors (students’ language at home, students’ immigrant status, and students’ family structure) represent students’ family characteristics.

1 The first item of evidence presented in A Nation at Risk (U.S. Department of Education 1983), a landmark report that became a key catalyst for nation-wide education reform, was that “on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.”
2 Methodological incompatibilities include sampling and test bias. See the National Research Council (2002) for a comprehensive overview of the methodological advances in international student assessment.
3 It is important to recognize that policy environments have a salient role in shaping the economic and social contexts of students who reside in a particular country. For example, countries differ significantly in their policies toward immigration. Policy environments can significantly influence the economic and social milieu of a country, which in turn can have implications for the relationship between economic and social contextual factors and educational achievement. However, while it is essential to consider the policy environments that may influence these factors when interpreting achievement scores, it is beyond the scope of this brief to analyze the influence of different policy environments on the relationship between macro policy decisions and student achievement. U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences NCES 2006–014
4 For further information on the variables used for this study, see the technical notes at the end of this report.