Paul Glewwe, University of Minnesota – University of Copenhagen

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Paul Glewwe, University of Minnesota

"What Explains Vietnam's Exceptional Performance in Education Relative to Other Countries? Analysis of the 2012 PISA Data"


Vietnam’s economic growth in the last 30 years has transformed it from one of the world’s poorest countries to a middle income country.  In more recent years, Vietnam’s accomplishments in education have also generated substantial international attention.  While its success at getting all children into school (primary completion rate of 97%, and lower secondary enrollment rate of 92%) is impressive, most striking is its performance on the 2012 PISA assessment: It ranked 16th in math and 18th in reading out of 63 countries and territories, ahead of both the US and the UK and much higher than any other developing country. 

This paper uses the 2012 PISA data to accomplish three tasks.  First, it investigates whether the Vietnamese students who participated in the 2012 PISA are representative of 15-year-olds in Vietnam in 2012.  Second, it uses regression methods to investigate what family or school characteristics in the PISA data can “explain” the high performance of Vietnamese students.  Third, it applies an Oaxaca-Blinder decomposition to better understand the difference in average test scores between Vietnamese students and students in the other countries that participated in the 2012 PISA assessment. 

The following conclusions are drawn.  First, it appears that the students in the PISA sample for Vietnam have higher socio-economic status than 15-year-old students in the 2012 Vietnam Household Living Standards Survey (VHLSS), and adjustments to the PISA sample to make it more “representative” yield somewhat lower test scores, although Vietnam remains a positive outlier conditional on its GDP per capita.  Even more important is that Vietnam has the third lowest school enrollment rate of the 63 countries that participated in the 2012 PISA assessment, at only 55.7%; a comparison that focuses on the top 50% of the entire population of 15-year-olds greatly reduces Vietnam’s rank among the 63 PISA countries, but it is still an outlier conditional on its low level of GDP.  Second, household and school level variables in the PISA data do not explain Vietnam’s high performance on the 2012 PISA relative to its income level.  Third, the Blinder-Oaxaca decompositions indicate that the gap in average test scores between Vietnam and the other 62 countries primarily reflects greater “productivity” of Vietnamese students in grade 10, relative to the “productivity” of grade 10 students in other countries, while differences in students’ and schools’ observable characteristics between Vietnam and the other PISA countries do not explain Vietnam’s higher performance.