Changes in test scores distribution for students of the fourth grade in Brazil: a relative distribution analysis for the years 1997 to 2005


To assess the quality of school education, much of educational research is concerned with comparisons of test scores means or medians. In this paper, we shift this focus and explore test scores data by addressing some often neglected questions. In the case of Brazil, the mean of test scores in Math for students of the fourth grade has declined approximately 0,2 standard deviation in the late 1990s. But what about changes in the distribution of scores? It is unclear whether the decline was caused by deterioration in student performance in upper and/or lower tails of the distribution. To answer this question, we propose the use of the relative distribution method developed by Handcock and Morris (1999). The advantage of this methodology is that it compares two distributions of test scores data through a single distribution and synthesizes all the differences between them. Moreover, it is possible to decompose the total difference between two distributions in a level effect (changes in median) and shape effect (changes in shape of the distribution). We find that the decline of average-test scores is mainly caused by a worsening in the position of all students throughout the distribution of scores and is not only specific to any quantile of distribution.

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