An in-depth analysis of performance indicators across 91 countries has found stark differences for different skill types not only across income clusters, as defined by the World Bank, but also within the same income cluster and within countries. While the differences are most pronounced between developed and developing countries, we also found wide variations in performance among high-income countries. In addition, we found differences within countries in terms of performance on foundational literacies versus higher-order competencies and character qualities.
Starting with differences between developed and developing countries, we found that higher-income countries in the OECD – which includes developed countries such as the United States, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom – tend to perform much better on average across most skills than developing countries in the upper-middle-income group, which includes countries such as Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa and Turkey (see Exhibit 3; Appendix 4 includes the members of each income group). For instance, median performance for upper-middle-income countries in our sample on the 2012 literacy test by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was 416, while high-income OECD countries scored significantly higher at 499.
While broad differences between high-income OECD countries and upper-middle-income countries can be discerned, it can be much more challenging to draw comparisons between these income clusters and lower-middle and low-income clusters. Virtually none of the lower-income countries take part in comparable tests such as PISA. A high-level analysis of regional tests, such as the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ), does allow a ranking comparison inclusive of some lower-income countries for literacy and numeracy (see Appendix 5 for a comparison of data across three tests we used in this report). The analysis confirms that higher-income countries do indeed perform better. However, notable exceptions exist, such as Vietnam, which ranks on par with Germany and ahead of France on literacy, and Tanzania, which ranks ahead of Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Africa on literacy in our sample. These exceptions show that income is only one of many factors affecting educational outcomes. As such, it is important to holistically evaluate unique country contexts when devising solutions to address skills gaps.
Broad differences in performance based on income make intuitive sense. More surprising are the wide variations in skills performance within even high-income clusters. Explore the interactive map in Exhibit 5 to compare the differences in skill performance between countries and clusters.
As one high-profile example, the United States performs relatively well on most skills when compared with the entire world. But when compared with high-performing peers such as Japan, Finland or South Korea, the United States shows significant gaps in numeracy and scientific literacy. The United States ranked 36th out of 65 countries that took the 2012 PISA mathematics test (with a score of 481) and 28th out of 65 countries on the 2012 PISA science test (with a score of 497), for instance, compared with Japan’s 2012 ranking of 7th in mathematics (a 536 score) and 4th in science (a 547 score).
In addition to gaps found vertically between countries, horizontal gaps also exist within the same country. At an individual country level, a gap exists between foundational literacies and competencies and character qualities such as critical thinking, creativity and curiosity. For example, Poland performs well on a range of indicators representing foundational literacies, even while displaying gaps in critical thinking/problem-solving and curiosity. Similarly, Ireland stands out in terms of foundational skill indicators relative to other OECD countries, but shows gaps when compared to peers on critical thinking/problem-solving, creativity and curiosity.
Some income clusters display strong performance across all skills. For example, Canada, Finland, South Korea and Japan are among the top performers within the high-income OECD group on all skills.