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How do household incomes correlate with students' test scores?

HeyTutor, in-person and online tutoring provider, analyzed the 2022 PISA exam results to see to what degree students' test scores correlate with socioeconomic status.

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Students from more socioeconomically privileged backgrounds are more likely to have access to learning resources such as extra tutoring, technology, books, mentors, and networks. When it comes to academic success, such resources provide an advantage over students whose parents have less education, face unemployment or poverty, or work in low-paying jobs. Students in these situations often experience economic hardship and stress in their early childhood, negatively impacting their cognitive development.

In 2022, teens from wealthier households scored better on the Programme for International Student Assessment exam than did those from lower-income households, a trend that's remained steady for a decade. HeyTutor, an in-person and online tutoring provider, looked at the 2022 PISA exam results to see to what degree students' test scores correlate with socioeconomic status.

The PISA exam is a global study administered every three years and evaluates the skills and real-world knowledge of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, and science. Almost 700,000 students took the most recent exam, which focused on math aptitude.

In general, students from more advantaged backgrounds tend to score higher than those from less advantaged backgrounds, both within and across countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—a conglomerate of wealthy nations that administer the PISA exam—stated in their fact sheets of 2022 PISA results that this socioeconomic gap in math remained stable between 2012 and 2022, both in the United States and across other wealthy nations.

PISA estimates socioeconomic status by the social, cultural, and financial capital resources available to the teens. Factors such as parental education, occupation, and possession ownership helped determine the socioeconomic status of the student test takers.

For the first time, the PISA student questionnaire asked about food insecurity, questioning how often students went hungry because there was not enough money for food within the past 30 days. More than 8% of students in OECD countries said they hadn't eaten at least once during the week due to a lack of finances. In some countries, however, the figure was over 10%, including the United Kingdom (10.5%) and the United States (13%). Cambodia had the highest percentage of students with food insecurity, at 67.8%, while Portugal, Finland, and the Netherlands had under 3% of students facing food insecurity.

Food insecurity can make it harder for students to concentrate in class and harm educational advancement, further creating an achievement gap between learners from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

The gap in test scores between kids from the highest and lowest household incomes is significant in every country

A chart showing PISA scores in 2022, broken down by country and socioeconomic status. Teens from the richest 25% of households scored an average of around 100 points higher than their compatriots in the bottom 25% in math.

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While kids from wealthier households tend to score better on standardized exams than kids from lower-income households, the test score gap between them varies by country.

For example, Romania had the largest disparity with teens from the richest quarter of households scoring 35.8% higher than their peers from the poorest 25%. U.S. teens from the richest 25% of households scored 24.25% higher than their peers from the poorest quarter. At only 6.3%, Uzbekistan had the smallest achievement gap between the richest and poorest test takers.

In the U.S., 39% of students (the largest portion) were among the most advantaged students internationally who took the PISA test in 2022. Their average mathematics score was 507 points. The gap between the most and the least advantaged students within each country is also substantial. In the United States, the most socioeconomically advantaged 25% of students outperformed the bottom quarter by 102 points in mathematics, which is similar to the OECD average of 93 points.

On average, OECD countries' most disadvantaged students are seven times more likely than the most advantaged students to lack basic math and science proficiency. In reading, disadvantaged students are five times more likely on average to score poorly than advantaged students in OECD countries.

Some students, however, were able to overcome their socioeconomic disadvantage and perform well in mathematics. Considered "academically resilient," 11% of students considered disadvantaged in the United States—and 10% of disadvantaged students across OECD countries—performed well on the math portion of the exam.

According to PISA, some disadvantaged students can overcome their disadvantages and achieve high levels of proficiency through policies and practices that promote equity and quality in education.

Story editing by Shannon Luders-Manuel. Copy editing by Tim Bruns.

This story originally appeared on HeyTutor and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.