The Revista del Centro de Estudios Educativos, numero 3, 1971 included an early Carnoy article on the economics of education: “Un enfoque de sistemas para evaluar la educación, ilustrado con datos de Puerto Rico.” The article used a unique data set that had student test scores, students’ family background characteristics, and information about teachers and other school inputs for about one-third of all students in Puerto Rican schools to estimate relations between teacher characteristics and student test scores controlling for students’ social class, gender, and whether the school was urban or rural. Such data sets were rare in the late 1960s, and so were attempts to understand how education systems worked to produce student learning outcomes—that is, to improve the quality of education.
There is a lot to criticize in the empirical analysis in that early article, but it does show that there was considerable concern about the quality of education in Latin America even back in 1971. That concern has grown greatly in the past fifty years as countries in the region have expanded their educational systems to provide an increasing proportion of youth with secondary schooling and higher education. With that expansion, there has been a shift in focus from policies concerned with access to schooling to policies concerned with improving the quality of schooling (UNESCO, 2005).
Two factors have contributed to this shift. The first is research claiming that quality of education, as measured by international test scores, is a better predictor of economic growth than the number of years of schooling in the labor force (Hanushek and Kimko, 2000; Hanushek and Woessman, 2008). The second is the increase in testing itself, both at the national and international levels. Student test results are being used increasingly to pressure national and local educational systems, schools, and individual teachers to have their students do better on the tests (OECD, 2013). League tables comparing schools, local school districts, regions, and nations against others are now a regular feature of educational politics in many countries of the world. To some extent, international test scores are becoming important enough to affect government legitimacy.