Preliminary Thoughts on TIMSS/PIRLS 2012

I had been meaning to post about this for a long time. Better late than never, I suppose.

The TIMSS and PIRLS are international assessments of academic ability in math, science and literacy that are conducted once every four years. They are similar to the PISA tests, although the latter are less purely academically focused and more a test of pure IQ.

Here are the results of TIMSS/PIRLS (h/t North Asian). And here are the results of PISA from 2009 for comparison.

As can be expected, they are highly correlated (r > 0.8 to be precise). This however makes the few differences all the more interesting. The gap between the East Asian countries and European countries, though substantial in PISA, is significantly greater in TIMSS/PIRLS. And most strikingly, both Russia and Israel go from being laggards in the OECD group to being at the forefront of the class.

  Math (PISA) Math (TIMSS)
Korea 539 613
Sweden 494 484
Russia 468 539
Israel 447 516

From performing more poorly than Turkey in the PISA reading test, Russia soars to take second global position in the PIRLS.

  Reading (PISA) Reading (PIRLS)
HK 533 571
Sweden 497 542
Russia 459 568
Israel 474 541

Meanwhile, some European countries, especially Sweden and Norway, plummet quite substantially.

What explains all this?

There are two possibilities. First, the TIMSS/PIRLS tests may have poorer samples than the PISA. For instance, we know from the latter that Moscow has a 10-point IQ lead over the rest of the country. If Muscovite pupils are over-sampled, then it’s quite feasible for the consequent result to be closer to say Hong Kong or Korea than to Greece or Turkey.

However, a second possibility is that the PISA-TIMSS/PIRLS gap is a proxy for differences in the quality of educational systems. It is more feasible to prepare for the TIMSS/PIRLS than it is for PISA, which is closer to an IQ test and is, as such, more difficult to improve through policy interventions. It is nowadays fashionable to lambast the ex-Soviet and East Asian school systems for “rote learning,” “stifling creativity,” and whatnot. However, the data shows that under these systems, pupils perform well above the levels they “should” as indicated by their underlying IQ levels. Meanwhile, in places where “creativity” and “self-expression” are given full bloom, where science lessons focus on the evils of plastic bags in between sermons on LGBT appreciation and the progressiveness of Islamic civilization, academic performance is somewhat less than what might expect based on the local students’ apparent IQ levels.

This all makes sense, I suppose. To be truly “creative” you first have to acquire a ton of skills and knowledge via the old method of applied hard work. Without that, “creativity” simply boils down to a sea of PoMo-waffling curmudgeons and MacBook-toting hipsters. And whoever needs that?

Italy, A Showcase For Why Human Capital Matters

One of the key criticisms of my last post on the tight connections between (educational) human capital and economic performance is that correlation need not imply causation. An alternate (and PC-compliant) explanation is that “you get the education system you could afford, and the level of human capital in the kids is mostly determined by the efficiency of the schooling system.” Is there any evidence to support this argument?


As a country with a long history of normal capitalist development, and with no regions enjoying particularly lucrative resource windfalls, it is not a surprise to see a close exponential correlation between my Human Capital Index (see methodology here) and Italy’s GDP (PPP, in US dollars) per capita (R2=0.7302).

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Education as the Elixir of Growth III

Just in case you thought the correlation between human capital and economic development was an artifice of the post-socialist world, here is a similar graph (R2=0.4273) for all the world’s countries that have participated in the Math and Science portions of the PISA or TIMMS (8th grade) international standardized student assessments.


The methodology is the same as described in the previous post. As you can see, the relation is every bit as strong at the global level. However, you may point to a few outliers. How to explain them?

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The Profound Irrelevance of Corruption, Institutions, And Ease Of Business To Economic Growth

That title sure caught you attention? Good. Now for the 1000-words-in-a-picture evidence.


Human capital refers to educational attainment, as measured by the results of the PISA and TIMMS standardized tests*. As you can see, there is a very close correlation between human capital and GDP (PPP) per capita. The exceptions all confirm the rule. For now I have only done the post-socialist space, because of its sheer variety – different cultures, different rule-of-law and ease of business environments, difference resource endowments and political systems – which lets me illustrate just how irrelevant all those factors are compared to human capital. The same laws hold at the global level, and I intend to cover it in a consequent post, but that involves a lot more work so for now I’ll just settle for this.

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Why China Is Far Superior To India

It is not a secret to longtime readers of this blog that I rate India’s prospects far more pessimistically than I do China’s. My main reason is I do not share the delusion that democracy is a panacea and that whatever advantage in this sphere India has is more than outweighed by China’s lead in any number of other areas ranging from infrastructure and fiscal sustainability to child malnutrition and corruption. However, one of the biggest and certainly most critical gaps is in educational attainment, which is the most important component of human capital – the key factor underlying all productivity increases and longterm economic growth. China’s literacy rate is 96%, whereas Indian literacy is still far from universal at just 74%.

Many people claim that China’s educational success is superficial, arguing that although it has achieved good literacy figures, standards – especially in the poor rural areas that have been neglected by the state during the reform period – are very low. This is not a minority view. The problem is that for proof they cite figures such as the average number of years of schooling or secondary enrollment ratios - which are still substantially inferior to those of developed nations – and assume that they directly correlate to the human capital generated among Chinese youth. This is a flawed approach because it doesn’t take into account the quality of schooling. Though not without its problems, by far the most objective method of assessing that is to look at international standardized tests in literacy, numeracy, and science. The most comprehensive such study is PISA, and it tells a radically different story.

The big problem, until recently, was that there was no internationalized student testing data for either China or India. (There was data for cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai, but it was not very useful because they are hardly representative of China). An alternative approach was to compare national IQ’s, in which China usually scored 100-105 and India scored in the low 80′s. But this method has methodological flaws because the IQ tests aren’t consistent across countries. (This, incidentally, also makes this approach a punching bag for PC enforcers who can’t bear to entertain the possibility of differing IQ’s across national and ethnic groups).

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IQ and Industrialism

My recent post on demographic myths unleashed a lively discussion on the issue of race and IQ in the comments section. I’m not too interested in wading into it: not out of any misplaced respect for political correctness, of course, but simply because though I think there are good arguments for both sides, it misses the largest issue. On the one hand, that there exist differences in measured IQ between races in the US and between nations is beyond dispute, and there is strong evidence to suggest that IQ is a strongly hereditary trait. On the other hand, one must also keep in mind that culture plays an indelible role on the formation and very definition of IQ. One striking demonstration of this is a “similarities test” administered by Michael Cole on members of the Kpelle tribe in Liberia, in which they were asked to group objects into categories such as food, tools, etc. They chose functional pairings – e.g. knife and potato, because a knife could not not cut a spoon – because a “Wise man could do such-and-such”. It was only when the researchers asked “How would a fool do it” that the tribesmen rearranged the items into their “correct” categories. So can the Kpelle really be called dumb? Isn’t their form of intelligence, though demented in the eyes of industrial man, actually eminently suited for their natural environment?

However, once upon a time, European peoples too had this psychology. Throughout the world the illiterate peasant tended to be dull, uninquisitive, childlike. (In stark contrast to the slick, lettered, cosmopolitan city-dweller). For instance, in an earlier post I mentioned the article Reconsidering Weber: Literacy and the Spirit of Capitalism by Russian sociologist Andrey Korotayev.

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