Abstract Academic resilience refers to students’ capacity to perform highly despite a disadvantaged background. Although most studies using international large-scale assessment (ILSA) data defined academic resilience with two criteria, student background and achievement, their conceptualizations and operationalizations varied substantially. In a systematic review, we identified 20 ILSA studies applying different criteria, different approaches to setting thresholds (the same fixed ones across countries or relative country-specific ones), and different threshold levels. Our study on the validity of these differences and how they affected the composition of academically resilient students revealed that the classification depended heavily on the threshold applied. When a fixed background threshold was applied, the classification was likely to be affected by the developmental state of a country. This could result in an overestimation of the proportions of academically resilient students in some countries while an underestimation in others. Furthermore, compared to the application of a social or economic capital indication, applying a cultural capital indicator may lead to lower shares of disadvantaged students classified as academically resilient. The composition of academically resilient students varied significantly by gender and language depending on which indicator of human capital or which thresholds were applied reflecting underlying societal characteristics. Conclusions drawn from such different results depending on the specific conceptualizations and operationalizations would vary greatly. Finally, our study utilizing PISA 2015 data from three countries representing diverse cultures and performance levels revealed that a stronger sense of belonging to a school significantly increased the chances to be classified as academically resilient in Peru, but not in Norway or Hong Kong. In contrast, absence from school was significantly associated with academic resilience in Norway and Hong Kong, but not in Peru.
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