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Are Hong Kongers more intelligent than Singaporeans?

Singapore students' test results yield an impressive overall score of 543.20 but below that of HK.

According to data compiled by Economist Intelligence Unit from selected economies, Hong Kong's Programme for International Student Assessment score was a little bit higher at 545.57.

The data was used to test the relationship between a country's income and its educational outcomes.

Here's what the research agency found:

Two correlations from the quantitative analysis indicate a link between a country’s income and its educational outcomes: higher GDP is associated with better overall PISA scores, and the UNDP’s Income Index is a predictor of national secondary school graduation rates. Similarly, PISA results correlate with national GDP and Income Index scores in the years following the tests being administered.

In both cases, however, the causation is not clear. In relation to the second link, for example, those who were age 15 in 2009 and 2006 have had so little time in the labour force that the contribution of their skills is unlikely to have had much effect yet on national income. That said, Professor Schleicher reports that PISA’s extensive longitudinal data on test-takers indicates that the test’s predictive power of ease of transition to work and initial income is high.

On the surface, this suggests a virtuous circle – money buys good education, which instils higher earning power. This seems to parallel an often observed link between socio-economic status and academic results within countries. If anything, this association is growing in the United States,2 but it is far from an American phenomenon. It is present in European countries, such as the United Kingdom and Italy, as well as, according to a 1999 study by a World Bank researcher, in 43 largely developing nations.

Money, for both countries and individuals, does brings obvious advantages. As Ms Parthasarathi notes for families, “wealth gives you access to schools where you assume there are better teachers, etc, [and] ... people who don’t have the means miss out on a lot of opportunities.” The wider link to educational results, however, is far from straightforward. Ms Parthasarathi points out that, at the individual level, even something as basic as student motivation can be greatly affected by economic background.

More generally, a recent OECD report indicates that a commitment to equity within an education system can greatly diminish the correlation between family income and educational outcomes. It points to Finland, Canada and South Korea, among others, as examples of success in this area.This is consistent with research conducted by the Canadian Council on Learning, says Mr Cappon.

“Our composite learning index showed no direct correlation between the wealth of a community and its learning environment. It is not a given that you simply get a higher result with higher income levels.”

Similarly, the tie between GDP per capita and PISA results is far from linear. For countries with incomes under $20,000 per person, economic growth appears to bring rapidly improving educational results. After that point, however, the gains become much less obvious.

This type of result is common in economics, appearing in areas such as the impact of national income on life expectancy: up to a certain point, the need is so great that almost any spending brings gains; thereafter the way that the money is spent becomes much more significant.

Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at Stanford University, explains: “It is more important how resources are used than how much. In some places school systems and countries seem to know how to spend wisely, in others they don’t.”

For most experts, however, talking of GDP’s effects on outcomes reverses causality. Professor Hanushek states that “it is not quite a chicken-and-egg thing. It doesn’t look like faster growth leads to higher PISA scores, but there is substantial evidence to suggest that if you can find a way to get higher PISA scores you will get higher growth.”

In other words, both current GDP and high levels of cognitive skills in students are results of the same education-policy decisions made sometimes many
years earlier. Professor Schleicher agrees, citing the experiences of South Korea and China which decades ago, with lower GDPs than many countries, made
strategic decisions to focus investment on education.

They have seen both national incomes and test scores surpass many others as a result. “It is not a question of if you are rich, you can afford a good education system,” he concludes. “You may need to build a 40-year time gap between investment and economic outcomes, but the causality of the link is established.”

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