Monitoring equity: Socioeconomic status in learning assessments

Monitoring equity: Socioeconomic status in learning assessments

Monitoring equity: Socioeconomic status in learning assessments

Why capture socioeconomic status?

Socioeconomic status (SES) is an important element in understanding the data from educational large-scale assessments – be they international, regional or national in scope. The importance of SES stems from its substantive effects on student performance, allowing study of differences in the social distribution of learning outcomes. This makes SES an important indicator for monitoring equity in education, which is a major concern for many education systems worldwide (OECD, 2008) and central to Goal 4 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, which aims to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. SES is also used to control statistically for socioeconomic circumstances when other factors are the main interest.


What constitutes socioeconomic status?

Socioeconomic status is defined as the relational position in an economic-social-cultural hierarchy (Diemer, Mistry, Wadsworth, Lόpez & Reimers, 2013). This definition originates in sociology, and is based on the concept of social stratification, which ranks individuals or groups (including families) hierarchically according to their access to income (economic aspects), power (control over others) and prestige (the honour and status given to a social position) (Hauser, 1994; Mueller & Parcel, 1981; Weber, 1968). This basic tripartite definition is equally used in research in different disciplines and across countries with different income contexts. However, the operationalization of what constitutes SES and how it should be assessed, is by no means universal (Diemer et al., 2013; Oakes & Rossi, 2003). The most commonly applied constituents of SES are education, occupation and income (Duncan, Featherman & Duncan1972; Bollen, Glanville & Stecklov, 2001; Grusky, 2001; Hauser, 1994; Mueller & Parcel, 1981; Saegert et al., 2007; Sirin, 2005).


What SES indicators are most frequently used in educational large-scale assessments?

Educational large-scale assessments typically focus on the SES of the learner’s family or household. The most frequently applied SES indicators are family wealth – as a proxy for income, parental education, and family/household structure – followed by indicators of poverty and parental occupation (Adams, Ahmed, Cloney, Dix, Friedman, Lietz, Robertson, Routitsky & Schwantner, forthcoming 2018). Subjective indicators (e.g. respondents’ perceptions of social position or material hardship and deprivation) and income are hardly used, not least because income is often such a sensitive issue leading to high non-response (Brese & Mirazchiyski, 2013; Hauser, 1994).

Also the use of home possessions as a proxy for family wealth is not without challenges. One difficulty particularly in international assessments is finding a taxonomy of household possessions that is culturally appropriate across many countries (Hauser, 1994). Another challenge is that household possessions are not constant in value or the wealth they represent across national contexts (Yang & Gustafsson, 2004). To deal with this, international assessments typically include a common set of international items as well as country-specific items about home possessions as part of a suite of SES measures. However, these measures appear to work better in some countries compared to others (Rutkowski &Rutkowski, 2013). By selecting items that are optimally targeted to the national profile of a country, i.e. based on World Bank Development Indicators, measurement of household wealth can be considerably improved (Cloney, Routitsky, Adams, Lietz & Schwantner, 2017).


What are the major implications for using SES to monitor equity in education?

Major efforts are being undertaken by the international community, in particular the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning hosted by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, to achieve and monitor the quality of education. Additional indicators are being established to account for the many facets of educational disadvantage children are facing around the world, including economic and social inequalities (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2018).

Research done so far has some important lessons for the future of capturing SES in large-scale learning assessments. First, in order to be effective and to generate meaningful results, SES indicators need to be appropriate for the social and economic environment they are applied in. For the purpose of international and regional assessments, it is important that SES indicators are comparable across different contexts. Secondly, more systematic research is required into how the indicators relate to learning outcomes, separately and in combination. For example, the extent to which specific indicators of poverty add to explaining differences in student performance is unclear (Adams et al., forthcoming 2018). Thirdly, wealth indicators are considered important for constructing an internationally comparable SES metric, due to their potential of reflecting commonalities as well as variability of different contexts. The analyses undertaken by Cloney et al. (2017) mark an important initial step to explore how a global indicator of wealth could be derived from home possession items. Finally, it needs to be noted that only where indicators are used that adequately describe the whole breadth of student performance in countries of varying income contexts, can the potential and complex effect of SES on performance be examined to improve learning outcomes.


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Written by: Ursula Schwantner and Raymond J. Adams, Australian Council for Educational Research


For more information, please contact: Ursula Schwantner []


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