Comparisons across cities will provide us with a clearer understanding of the way systems and schools contribute to student outcomes.

This project is significant in presenting a new and fertile approach to important questions which stand in need of better research. International evidence of student learning outcomes has grown substantially in recent decades through PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS. These assessment programs have helped improve our understanding of how well school systems function, and different strengths and priorities for development across countries. Yet the promise of international testing—to improve the performance of school systems by understanding them better—has not been fulfilled.

Despite the wealth of data generated by these assessment programs, our understanding of why educational outcomes differ between countries with comparable social structures and national income remains limited. Why one country provides stronger student outcomes, or is more equitable than another, and whether equality comes at the price of quality, remain elusive questions, as does change in the rank of a country on such measures. Can we use the tools of international assessment to better illuminate how systems work, and how differences arise between countries in how well they prepare all students for life beyond school? This will depend on how good we are at theory-building and whether we can create good analytical tools to compare school systems in terms of social processes and student outcomes.

This project is innovative in a number of ways. Firstly, it tests the strength of a conceptual framework for comparing how different institutional arrangements work, and for whom they work best, in different countries. Secondly it uses the tools of international student assessment to examine the impact of these arrangements on students of similar measured ability. Thirdly it uses a broad concept of student outcome, taking into account academic and non-academic skills, that enables impact to be measured in a consistent way across different national systems. The research will provide one of the few studies to measure the effects of different systems of school organisation, program structures and graduation pathways on student progress and outcomes, using similarly selected samples of students in a longitudinal study design.