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Looking into the qualifications 'black box': what can international surveys tell us about basic competence?

By Hilary Steedman


This paper investigates the usefulness of the International Standard Classification of Education (henceforth ISCED) in cross-national comparisons within the EU. The paper first assesses the extent to which the <ISCED 3 group (no education or training beyond compulsory school) can be considered a valid proxy for the ''low skills'' group in the population. It then assesses the consistency of the ISCED levels as an instrument for comparisons of skill levels within the EU. The international surveys used to test the validity of the ISCED are, first, work carried out at the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) for the British government''s 1996 Skills Audit; second, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS); and third, the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). Using the benchmark established for the British government''s Skills Audit the three EU countries included in the survey - France, Germany and the UK - had similar proportions of those classified to <ISCED 3 in each country below the ''low skills'' benchmark. Using the TIMSS data, thirty simple questions requiring only basic arithmetic were selected and the performance of each of the EU6 countries on these questions was analysed. The IALS data showed that the group at the lowest literacy level (Level 1) varied considerably in size between EU countries included in the survey but, on average for the EU countries, most (85 per cent ) of those who scored at Level 1 were classified to <ISCED 3. Of those in the EU countries who scored at IALS 1 and 2 , on average, around two-thirds (66 per cent), classified to <ISCED 3 on the basis of their highest qualification. This shows that around one third of the <ISCED 3 category score higher than IALS Level 2 and is consistent with the findings elsewhere of greater heterogeneity of the <ISCED 3 group

Topics: L Education (General)
Publisher: Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science
Year: 1999
OAI identifier:
Provided by: LSE Research Online
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