Beware the ‘short head’: PISA’s Resilient Students’ Measure


This post takes a closer look at the PISA concept of ‘resilient students’ – essentially a measure of disadvantaged high attainment amongst 15 year-olds – and how this varies from country to country.

7211284724_f3c5515bf7_mThe measure was addressed briefly in my recent review of the evidence base for excellence gaps in England but there was not space on that occasion to provide a thoroughgoing review.

The post is organised as follows:

  • A definition of the measure and explanation of how it has changed since the concept was first introduced.
  • A summary of key findings, including selected international comparisons, and of trends over recent PISA cycles.
  • A brief review of OECD and related research material about the characteristics of resilient learners.

I have not provided background about the nature of PISA assessments, but this can be found in previous posts about the mainstream PISA 2012 results and PISA 2012 Problem Solving.


Defining the resilient student

In 2011, the OECD published ‘Against the Odds: Disadvantaged students who succeed in school’, which introduced the notion of PISA as a study of resilience. It uses PISA 2006 data throughout and foregrounds science, as did the entire PISA 2006 cycle.

There are two definitions of resilience in play: an international benchmark and a country-specific measure to inform discussion of effective policy levers in different national settings.

The international benchmark relates to the top third of PISA performers (ie above the 67th percentile) across all countries after accounting for socio-economic background. The resilient population comprises students in this group who also fall within the bottom third of the socio-economic background distribution in their particular jurisdiction.

Hence the benchmark comprises an international dimension of performance and a national/jurisdictional dimension of disadvantage.

This cohort is compared with disadvantaged low achievers, a population similarly derived, except that their performance is in the bottom third across all countries, after accounting for socio-economic background.

The national benchmark applies the same national measure relating to socio-economic background, but the measure of performance is the top third of the national/jurisdictional performance distribution for the relevant PISA test.

The basis for determining socio-economic background is the PISA Index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status (ESCS).

‘Against the Odds’ describes it thus:

‘The indicator captures students’ family and home characteristics that describe their socio-economic background. It includes information about parental occupational status and highest educational level, as well as information on home possessions, such as computers, books and access to the Internet.’

Further details are provided in the original PISA 2006 Report (p333).

Rather confusingly, the parameters of the international benchmark were subsequently changed.

PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background – Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes Volume II describes the new methodology in this fashion:

‘A student is classified as resilient if he or she is in the bottom quarter of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) in the country of assessment and performs in the top quarter across students from all countries after accounting for socio-economic background. The share of resilient students among all students has been multiplied by 4 so that the percentage values presented here reflect the proportion of resilient students among disadvantaged students (those in the bottom quarter of the PISA index of social, economic and cultural status).’

No reason is given for this shift to a narrower measure of both attainment and disadvantage, nor is the impact on results discussed.

The new methodology is seemingly retained in PISA 2012 Results: Excellence through Equity: Giving every student the chance to succeed – Volume II:

‘A student is class­ed as resilient if he or she is in the bottom quarter of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) in the country of assessment and performs in the top quarter of students among all countries, after accounting for socio-economic status.’

However, multiplication by four is dispensed with.

This should mean that the outcomes from PISA 2009 and 2012 are broadly comparable with some straightforward multiplication. However the 2006 results foreground science, while in 2009 the focus is reading – and shifts on to maths in 2012.

Although there is some commonality between these different test-specific results (see below), there is also some variation, notably in terms of differential outcomes for boys and girls.


PISA 2006 results

The chart reproduced below compares national percentages of resilient students and disadvantaged low achievers in science using the original international benchmark. It shows the proportion of resilient learners amongst disadvantaged students.


Resil 2006 science Capture

Conversely, the data table supplied alongside the chart shows the proportion of resilient students amongst all learners. Results have to be multiplied by three on this occasion (since the indicator is based on ‘top third attainment, bottom third advantage’).

I have not reproduced the entire dataset, but have instead created a subset of 14 jurisdictions in which my readership may be particularly interested, namely: Australia, Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Shanghai, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the UK and the US. I have also included the OECD average.

I have retained this grouping throughout the analysis, even though some of the jurisdictions do not appear throughout – in particular, Shanghai and Singapore are both omitted from the 2006 data.

Chart 1 shows these results.


Resil first chart Chart 1: PISA resilience in science for selected jurisdictions by gender (PISA 2006 data)


All the jurisdictions in my sample are relatively strong performers on this measure. Only the United States falls consistently below the OECD average.

Hong Kong has the highest percentage of resilient learners – almost 75% of its disadvantaged students achieve the benchmark. Finland is also a very strong performer, while other jurisdictions achieving over 50% include Canada, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

The UK is just above the OECD average, but the US is ten points below. The proportion of disadvantaged resilient students in Hong Kong is almost twice the proportion in the UK and two and a half times the proportion in the US.

Most of the sample shows relatively little variation between their proportions of male and female resilient learners. Females have a slight lead across the OECD as a whole, but males are in the ascendancy in eight of these jurisdictions.

The largest gap – some 13 percentage points in favour of boys – can be found in Hong Kong. The largest advantage in favour of girls – 6.9 percentage points – is evident in Poland. In the UK males are ahead by slightly over three percentage points.

The first chart also shows that there is a relatively strong relationship between the proportion of resilient students and of disadvantaged low achievers. Jurisdictions with the largest proportions of resilient students typically have the smallest proportions of disadvantaged low achievers.

In Hong Kong, the proportion of disadvantaged students who are low achievers is 6.3%, set against an OECD average of 25.8%. Conversely, in the US, this proportion reaches 37.8% – and is 26.7% in the UK. Of this sample, only the US has a bigger proportion of disadvantaged low achievers than of disadvantaged resilient students.


‘Against the Odds’ examines the relationship between resiliency in science, reading and maths, but does so using the national benchmark, so the figures are not comparable with those above. I have, however, provided a chart comparing performance in my sample of jurisdictions.


Resil second chart

Chart 2: Students resilient in science who are resilient in other subjects, national benchmark of resilience, PISA 2006


Amongst the jurisdictions for which we have data there is a relatively similar pattern, with between 47% and 56% of students resilient in all three subjects.

In most cases, students who are resilient in two subjects combine science and maths rather than science and reading, but this is not universally true since the reverse pattern applies in Ireland, Japan and South Korea.

The document summarises the outcomes thus:

‘This evidence indicates that the vast majority of students who are resilient with respect to science are also resilient in at least one if not both of the other domains…These results suggest that resilience in science is not a domain-specific characteristic but rather there is something about these students or the schools they attend that lead them to overcome their social disadvantage and excel at school in multiple subject domains.’


PISA 2009 Results

The results drawn from PISA 2009 focus on outcomes in reading, rather than science, and of course the definitional differences described above make them incompatible with those for 2006.

The first graph reproduced below shows the outcomes for the full set of participating jurisdictions, while the second – Chart 2 – provides the results for my sample.

Resil PISA 2009 Capture


Resil third chart

Chart 3: PISA resilience in reading for selected jurisdictions by gender (PISA 2009 data)


The overall OECD average is pitched at 30.8% compared with 39% on the PISA 2006 science measure. Ten of our sample fall above the OECD average and Australia matches it, but the UK, Ireland and the US are below the average, the UK undershooting it by some seven percentage points.

The strongest performer is Shanghai at 75.6%, closely followed by Hong Kong at 72.4%. They and South Korea are the only jurisdictions in the sample which can count over half their disadvantaged readers as resilient. Singapore, Finland and Japan are also relatively strong performers.

There are pronounced gender differences in favour of girls. They have a 16.8 percentage point lead over boys in the OECD average figure and they outscore boys in every country in our sample. These differentials are most marked in Finland, Poland and New Zealand. In the UK there is a difference of 9.2 percentage points, smaller than in many other countries in the sample.

The comparison with the proportion of disadvantaged low achievers is illustrated by chart 3. This reveals the huge variation in the performance of our sample.


Resil fourth chart

Chart 4: Comparing percentage of resilient and low-achieving students in reading, PISA 2009

At one extreme, the proportion of disadvantaged low achievers (bottom quartile of the achievement distribution) is virtually negligible in Shanghai and Hong Kong, while around three-quarters of disadvantaged students are resilient (top quartile of the achievement distribution).

At the other, countries like the UK have broadly similar proportions of low achievers and resilient students. The chart reinforces just how far behind they are at both the top and the bottom of the attainment spectrum.


PISA 2012 Results

In 2012 the focus is maths rather than reading. The graph reproduced below compares resilience scores across the full set of participating jurisdictions, while Chart 4 covers only my smaller sample.


Resil PISA 2012 Capture

resil fifth chart Chart 5: PISA resilience in maths for selected jurisdictions by gender (PISA 2012 data)


Despite the change in subject, the span of performance on this measure is broadly similar to that found in reading three years earlier. The OECD average is 25.6%, roughly five percentage points lower than the average in 2009 reading.

Nine of the sample lie above the OECD average, while Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, UK and the US are below. The UK is closer to the OECD average in maths than it was in reading, however, and is a relatively stronger performer than the US and New Zealand.

Shanghai and Hong Kong are once again the top performers, at 76.8% and 72.4% respectively. Singapore is at just over 60% and South Korea at just over 50%. Taiwan and Japan are also notably strong performers.

Within the OECD average, boys have a four percentage point lead on girls, but boys’ relatively stronger performance is not universal – in Hong Kong, Poland, Singapore and South Korea, girls are in the ascendancy.  This is most strongly seen in Poland. The percentage point difference in the UK is just 2.

The comparison with disadvantage low achievers is illustrated in Chart 5.


Resil sixth chart

Chart 6: Comparing percentage of resilient and low-achieving students in maths, PISA 2012


Once again the familiar pattern emerges, with negligible proportions of low achievers in the countries with the largest shares of resilient students. At the other extreme, the US and New Zealand are the only two jurisdictions in this sample with a longer ‘tail’ of low achievers. The reverse is true in the UK, but only just!


Another OECD Publication ‘Strengthening Resilience through Education: PISA Results – background document’ contains a graph showing the variance in jurisdictions’ mathematical performance by deciles of socio-economic disadvantage. This is reproduced below.


resil maths deciles Capture

The text adds:

‘Further analysis indicates that the 10% socio-economically most disadvantaged children in Shanghai perform at the same level as the 10% most privileged children in the United States; and that the 20% most disadvantaged children in Finland, Japan, Estonia, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong-China and Shanghai-China compare favourably to the OECD average.’

One can see that the UK is decidedly ‘mid-table’ at both extremes of the distribution. On the evidence of this measure, one cannot fully accept the oft-repeated saw that the UK is a much stronger performer with high attainers than with low attainers, certainly as far as disadvantaged learners are concerned.


The 2012 Report also compares maths-based resiliency records over the four cycles from PISA 2003 to PISA 2012 – as shown in the graph reproduced below – but few of the changes are statistically significant. There has also been some statistical sleight of hand to ensure comparability across the cycles.


resil comparing PISA 2003 to 2012 capture

Amongst the outcomes that are statistically significant, Australia experienced a fall of 1.9 percentage points, Canada 1.6 percentage points, Finland 3.3 percentage points and New Zealand 2.9 percentage points. The OECD average was relatively little changed.

The UK is not included in this analysis because of issues with its PISA 2003 results.

Resilience is not addressed in the main PISA 2012 report on problem-solving, but one can find online the graph below, which shows the relative performance of the participating countries.

It is no surprise that the Asian Tigers are at the top of the league (although Shanghai is no longer in the ascendancy). England (as opposed to the UK) is at just over 30%, a little above the OECD average, which appears to stand at around 27%.

The United States and Australia perform at a very similar level. Canada is ahead of them and Poland is the laggard.


resil problem solving 2012 Capture


Resilience in the home countries

Inserted for the purposes of reinforcement, the chart below compiles the UK outcomes from the PISA 2006, 2009 and 2012 studies above, as compared with the top performer in my sample for each cycle and the appropriate OECD average. Problem-solving is omitted.

Only in science (using the ‘top third attainer, bottom third disadvantage’ formula) does the UK exceed the OECD average figure and then only slightly.

In both reading and maths, the gap between the UK and the top performer in my sample is eye-wateringly large: in each case there are more than three times as many resilient students in the top-performing jurisdiction.

It is abundantly clear from this data that disadvantaged high attainers in the UK do not perform strongly compared with their peers elsewhere.


Resil seventh chart

Chart 7: Resilience measures from PISA 2006-2012 comparing UK with top performer in this sample and OECD average


Unfortunately NFER does not pick up the concept of resilience in its analysis of England’s PISA 2012 results.

The only comparative analysis across the Home Countries that I can find is contained in a report prepared for the Northern Ireland Ministry of Education by NFER called ‘PISA 2009: Modelling achievement and resilience in Northern Ireland’ (March 2012).

This uses the old ‘highest third by attainment, lowest third by disadvantage’ methodology deployed in ‘Against the Odds’. Reading is the base.

The results show that 41% of English students are resilient, the same figure as for the UK as a whole. The figures for the other home countries appear to be: Northern Ireland 42%; Scotland 44%; and Wales 35%.

Whether the same relationship holds true in maths and science using the ‘top quartile, bottom quartile’ methodology is unknown. One suspects though that each of the UK figures given above will also apply to England.


The characteristics of resilient learners

‘Against the Odds’ outlines some evidence derived from comparisons using the national benchmark:

  • Resilient students are, on average, somewhat more advantaged than disadvantaged low achievers, but the difference is relatively small and mostly accounted for by home-related factors (eg. number of books in the home, parental level of education) rather than parental occupation and income.
  • In most jurisdictions, resilient students achieve proficiency level 4 or higher in science. This is true of 56.8% across the OECD. In the UK the figure is 75.8%; in Hong Kong it is 88.4%. We do not know what proportions achieve the highest proficiency levels.
  • Students with an immigrant background – either born outside the country of residence or with parents were born outside the country – tend to be under-represented amongst resilient students.
  • Resilient students tend to be more motivated, confident and engaged than disadvantaged low achievers. Students’ confidence in their academic abilities is a strong predictor of resilience, stronger than motivation.
  • Learning time – the amount of time spent in normal science lessons – is also a strong predictor of resilience, but there is relatively little evidence of an association with school factors such as school management, admissions policies and competition.

Volume III of the PISA 2012 Report: ‘Ready to Learn: Students’ engagement, drive and self-beliefs’ offers a further gloss on these characteristics from a mathematical perspective:

‘Resilient students and advantaged high-achievers have lower rates of absenteeism and lack of punctuality than disadvantaged and advantaged low-achievers…

….resilient and disadvantaged low-achievers tend to have lower sense of belonging than advantaged low-achievers and advantaged high-achievers: socio-economically disadvantaged students express a lower sense of belonging than socio-economically advantaged students irrespective of their performance in mathematics.

Resilient students tend to resemble advantaged high-achievers with respect to their level of drive, motivation and self-beliefs: resilient students and advantaged high-achievers have in fact much higher levels of perseverance, intrinsic and instrumental motivation to learn mathematics, mathematics self-efficacy, mathematics self-concept and lower levels of mathematics anxiety than students who perform at lower levels than would be expected of them given their socio-economic condition…

….In fact, one key characteristic that resilient students tend to share across participating countries and economies, is that they are generally physically and mentally present in class, are ready to persevere when faced with challenges and difficulties and believe in their abilities as mathematics learners.’

Several research studies can be found online that reinforce these findings, sometimes adding a few further details for good measure:

The aforementioned NFER study for Northern Ireland uses a multi-level logistic model to investigate the school and student background factors associated with resilience in Northern Ireland using PISA 2009 data.

It derives odds ratios as follows: grammar school 7.44; female pupils 2.00; possessions – classic literature 1.69; wealth 0.76; percentage of pupils eligible for FSM – 0.63; and books in home – 0-10 books 0.35.

On the positive impact of selection the report observes:

‘This is likely to be largely caused by the fact that to some extent grammar schools will be identifying the most resilient students as part of the selection process. As such, we cannot be certain about the effectiveness or otherwise of grammar schools in providing the best education for disadvantaged children.’

Another study – ‘Predicting academic resilience with mathematics learning and demographic variables’ (Cheung et al 2014) – concludes that, amongst East Asian jurisdictions such as Hong-Kong, Japan and South Korea, resilience is associated with avoidance of ‘redoublement’ and having attended kindergarten for more than a year.

Unsurprisingly, students who are more familiar with mathematical concepts and have greater mathematical self-efficacy are also more likely to be resilient.

Amongst other countries in the sample – including Canada and Finland – being male, native (as opposed to immigrant) and avoiding ‘redoublement’ produced stronger chances of resilience.

In addition to familiarity with maths concepts and self-efficacy, resilient students in these countries were less anxious about maths and had a higher degree of maths self-concept.

Work on ‘Resilience Patterns in Public Schools in Turkey’ (unattributed and undated) – based on PISA 2009 data and using the ‘top third, bottom third’ methodology – finds that 10% of a Turkish sample are resilient in reading, maths and science; 6% are resilient in two subjects and a further 8% in one only.

Resilience varies in different subjects according to year of education.

resil Turkey Capture

There are also significant regional differences.

Odds ratios show a positive association with: more than one year of pre-primary education; selective provision, especially in maths; absence of ability grouping; additional learning time, especially for maths and science; a good disciplinary climate and strong teacher-student relations.

An Italian study – ‘A way to resilience: How can Italian disadvantaged students and schools close the achievement gap?’ (Agasisti and Longobardi, undated) uses PISA 2009 data to examine the characteristics of resilient students attending schools with high levels of disadvantage.

This confirms some of the findings above in respect of student characteristics, finding a negative impact from immigrant status (and also from a high proportion of immigrants in a school). ‘Joy in reading’ and ‘positive attitude to computers’ are both positively associated with resilience, as is a positive relationship with teachers.

School type is found to influence the incidence of resilience – particularly enrolment in Licei as opposed to professional or technical schools – so reflecting one outcome of the Northern Irish study. Other significant school level factors include the quality of educational resources available and investment in extracurricular activities. Regional differences are once more pronounced.

A second Italian study – ‘Does public spending improve educational resilience? A longitudinal analysis of OECD PISA data’ (Agasisti et al 2014) finds a positive correlation between the proportion of a country’s public expenditure devoted to education and the proportion of resilient students.

Finally, this commentary from Marc Tucker in the US links its relatively low incidence of resilient students to national views about the nature of ability:

‘In Asia, differences in student achievement are generally attributed to differences in the effort that students put into learning, whereas in the United States, these differences are attributed to natural ability.  This leads to much lower expectations for students who come from low-income families…

My experience of the Europeans is that they lie somewhere between the Asians and the Americans with respect to the question as to whether effort or genetic material is the most important explainer of achievement in school…

… My take is that American students still suffer relative to students in both Europe and Asia as a result of the propensity of the American education system to sort students out by ability and assign different students work at different challenge levels, based on their estimates of student’s inherited intelligence.’



What are we to make of all this?

It suggests to me that we have not pushed much beyond statements of the obvious and vague conjecture in our efforts to understand the resilient student population and how to increase its size in any given jurisdiction.

The comparative statistical evidence shows that England has a real problem with underachievement by disadvantaged students, as much at the top as the bottom of the attainment distribution.

We are not alone in facing this difficulty, although it is significantly more pronounced than in several of our most prominent PISA competitors.

We should be worrying as much about our ‘short head’ as our ‘long tail’.



September 2014








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