. "9. Statistical Issues in Analysis of International Comparisons of Educational Achievement." Methodological Advances in Cross-National Surveys of Educational Achievement. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2002.
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Methodological Advances in Cross-National Surveys of Educational Achievement
changes. The large mean difference between the two distributions appears roughly invariant across the percentiles (if anything, the differences are smallest at the lowest percentiles). Here a single mean difference does appear to capture the key feature of the difference in distributions. (Of course, we would go further to characterize the uncertainty about this mean difference by a confidence interval.) Note that Figure 9-1 does not provide a confidence interval for differences between the countries at any given percentile and is therefore appropriate only as a first check on how the distributions differ.
Age and Grade Effects
As mentioned earlier, country comparisons may be confounded by age even after controlling for grade. Even more perplexing, grade may be viewed as an outcome variable as well as a predictor of achievement because substantial numbers of students who fare poorly are likely to be retained in grade in some societies. This policy of grade retention may distort cross-national comparisons.
Figures 9-2a and 9-2b illustrate these difficulties. The figures provide scatterplots that display overall mathematics achievement (vertical axis) as a function of age (horizontal axis) for Population 2 (seventh and eighth graders). Figure 9-2a displays this association for Japan and Figure 9-2b does so for the United States. The figures reveal considerably more variability in age for the United States than for Japan. Moreover, the association between age and achievement differs in the two countries. Age and achievement are positively associated, as one might expect, in Japan. In contrast, the association between age and achievement in the United States, although curvilinear, is on average negative. Technically, there is an interaction effect between country and age. Thus, country comparisons will differ at different ages. What accounts for this interaction?1
This U.S. scatterplot seems to suggest that grade retention in the United States is affecting both the distribution of age and the age-outcome association. U.S. students who are older than expected, given their grade, plausibly have been retained in grade, and achieve at lower levels than their grade-level peers.2
The issue of confounding variables often arises in discussion of causal inference, and the reader may wonder whether we are criticizing TIMSS here for not supporting a causal inference. Indeed, the presence of confounding variables would certainly challenge the validity of causal inferences regarding national education systems as causes of national achievement differences. But our concern here simply involves accurate interpretation of descriptive statistics, not causal inference. The implied purpose of cross-national comparisons controlling for grade, as all TIMSS