Every three years, there is a moment in which media attention invariably shifts to the topic of education: the publication of results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). These tests measure knowledge of math, reading and science in 15-year-olds from 65 countries around the world. In 2012, eight countries in Latin America participated: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.
Much of the attention being given to the publication of PISA results focuses on countries’ rankings and their changes over time. Nonetheless, PISA results inspire a great deal of discussion that goes beyond the rankings. We know that the region has invested considerable resources and effort to expand preschool access over the last decade. Recently, a group of colleagues at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) published an analysis [available in Spanish] of performance on PISA for those students who had attended preschool from the time they were very young. Here is what they found:
- Very few 15-year-olds who took the PISA never attended preschool. This fact alone is surprising. The country with the highest percentage of youth who reported not having attended preschool is Brazil (19%), and the one with the lowest percentage is Argentina (6%).
- A large number of youth who took the PISA attended preschool for over a year. In four of the countries that implemented PISA testing (Argentina, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay), the percentage of youth who attended preschool for over a year (70%) is close to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) levels. This percentage is about 45% in Brazil and Costa Rica and 33% in Chile and Colombia.
- There are significant socioeconomic gradients in preschool access. The highest gradients are observed in Peru (30-percentage point difference between rich and poor students) and the lowest in Chile (20-percentage point difference between rich and poor). Even in Chile, the socioeconomic gradient stands five percentage points above that observed in OECD countries.
- Urban/rural access gaps are smaller than socioeconomic ones. Colombia has the lowest rural enrollment, with 70% of students at rural schools that participated in PISA reporting that they did not attend preschool.
- Those who attended preschool fared better on the PISA tests. Even after controlling for socioeconomic status, these differences remain. In math, youth who attended more than one year of preschool scored almost one grade level higher than those who did not attend preschool. It is important to note that these results are only correlations, i.e., it is not possible to establish a causal relationship between preschool attendance and PISA scores.
These results seem to favorably support the region’s efforts to expand access to preschool education. At the same time, we know that the relative performance of Latin American countries [available in Spanish] on PISA is worse than that of other countries with similar incomes. The countries in the region fell in the bottom third of the ranking for all three subjects. In math, for example, Latvia and Lithuania (countries with a per capita income similar to Chile) ranked 28th and 37th, respectively. Chile came in at 51. Vietnam, with a per capita income below that of Peru, ranked 14th while Peru was 65th. Indeed, this reminds us that expanding preschool coverage without an ongoing, system-wide, and sustainable emphasis on quality is simply not enough.
How else can we improve the quality of preschool education? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or on Twitter.