Internationally Comparable Mathematics Scores for Fourteen African Countries

52 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2017

Date Written: December 2, 2016


Internationally comparable test scores play a central role in both research and policy debates on education. However, the main international testing regimes, such as PISA, TIMSS, or PIRLS, include very few low-income countries. For instance, most countries in Southern and Eastern Africa have opted instead for a regional assessment known as SACMEQ. This paper exploits an overlap between the SACMEQ and TIMSS tests — in both country coverage, and questions asked — to assesses the feasibility of constructing global learning metrics by equating regional and international scales. I compare three different equating methods and find that learning levels in this sample of African countries are consistently (a) low in absolute terms, with average pupils scoring below the fifth percentile for most developed economies; (b) significantly lower than predicted by African per capita GDP levels; and (c) converging slowly, if at all, to the rest of the world during the 2000s. While these broad patterns are robust, average performance in individual countries is quite sensitive to the method chosen to link scores. Creating test scores which are truly internationally comparable would be a global public good, requiring more concerted effort at the design stage.

Keywords: learning assessments, education quality, human capital, Africa

JEL Classification: I25, J24, O15, O55

Suggested Citation

Sandefur, Justin, Internationally Comparable Mathematics Scores for Fourteen African Countries (December 2, 2016). Center for Global Development Working Paper No. 444, Available at SSRN: or

Justin Sandefur (Contact Author)

Center for Global Development ( email )

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