By Élisé Wendlassida Miningou, Education Economist, and Ramya Vivekanandan, Senior Education Specialist, Global Partnership for Education (GPE)
Political leaders and policymakers the world over share one common challenge: relentless demands for resources. They have to make tough choices about resource allocation, particularly in countries that are most fragile and conflict-affected where the needs are vast and the available resources are constrained by numerous other priorities. It is hardly surprising that learning assessments may not be at the top of their ‘to do’ list.
It is our job in the global education community to make a strong and clear investment case for such assessments, given their critical importance for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) and, by extension, the world’s entire development agenda. As stressed in the SDG 4 Data Digest, published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) in December, everything hinges on learning, from eradicating poverty to building peaceful and inclusive societies.
The contribution from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) to the Digest focused on the status of learning assessments in GPE’s 67 partner countries. Almost one-half of partner countries are fragile or conflict-affected states, but all of them share one single vision: to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all. GPE is dedicated to supporting them as they pursue that vision, drawing on two main pillars: the GPE Results Framework, which monitors, among other things, the status of learning assessment systems, and support to strengthen learning assessment systems in partner countries.
Good news and bad news on learning assessments
The good news is that overall learning outcomes are improving in GPE partner countries. A look at 20 partner countries with baseline data suggests reasonable progress between 2000 and 2015. In total, 13 countries – 65% of those with data – showed improvements in comparable learning assessments during the given timeframe, while 50% of the countries from this sample that were affected by fragility and conflict did so.
The bad news is that not every GPE partner country is monitoring learning outcomes, and the quality of existing monitoring often needs improvement. Only two-thirds of GPE partner countries are expected to have conducted at least one learning assessment between 2016 and 2019. And while that is far more than a decade ago, we have some way to go before all partner countries are implementing strong and sustainable learning assessments and, very importantly, using them to improve learning.
Among the 48 partner countries that are expected to have carried out a large-scale learning assessment between 2011 and 2019, only a handful are expected to have administered learning assessments that are comparable over time and that could, therefore, be used to compute learning trends. And nearly one-third of partner countries are not expected to administer any large-scale learning assessment by 2019.
This is a real problem, especially in light of SDG Target 4.1 on minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. If countries have no assessment in place to monitor learning levels, they cannot know whether children are learning at minimum proficiency levels – or learning anything at all.
Within countries, there are technical challenges, including a lack of experts who can design, administer and analyse the data. There are quality challenges, with concerns about the validity and reliability of assessments. And there are challenges on follow up: even the most robust data are rarely used to support improvements in learning.
Policymakers are often not particularly engaged in assessment, even though their full engagement is vital if the results are to have any impact. The results themselves may not be packaged in a way that resonates with policymakers, if they are disseminated at all. Ultimately, policymakers may not be fully aware of the assessment or its results and, therefore, unaware of what they should do about them.
Then there is the question of funding. We can be talking about significant amounts – particularly for fragile economies – with large-scale assessment costing an average of $500,000. However, as noted by the SDG 4 Data Digest, the proportion of funds that countries spend on assessments is small in comparison to overall government spending per student, and minuscule when set against the enormous social and economic costs of poor learning. This is the investment case that we need to make, repeatedly and strenuously.
GPE support for assessment capacity
GPE prioritises the strengthening of learning assessment systems in our partner countries. Some support is financial, with grants worth US$5.1 billion allocated to partner countries between 2002 and 2018 for a range of purposes, including assessments. We also support standards for effective monitoring.
For example, we work with partner countries to develop assessments that meet the following criteria:
- carried out regularly with all eligible students;
- administered by a permanent agency, institution or office;
- based on official learning standards or curriculum;
- accompanied by publicly-available technical documents;
- results disseminated within a reasonable timeframe; and
- assessment data used to monitor learning outcomes.
We use these criteria to classify the overall assessment systems in our partner countries as ‘established’ (meeting the criteria), ‘under development’ or ‘nascent’. According to our baseline data collected in 2016, only 32% of all partner countries (19 out of 60) and 21% of countries affected by fragility and conflict in the partnership were classified as ‘established’. We will revisit these criteria on a regular basis to track progress, with the results to be published soon.
Our program implementation grants invest in learning assessment systems. For example, Bangladesh has used the grant to conduct classroom-based and national assessments, while the Democratic Republic of Congo has established an independent agency responsible for national assessments as part of funding to improve reading performance in primary grades.
Another example is Sudan, which joined the GPE in 2012, after a political crisis left over 2 million people internally displaced. With no system to collect basic education data, the government aimed to build data capacity for educational planning and system-wide improvements. Part of an overall GPE grant of US$76.5 million has supported the establishment of a National Learning Assessment, which was conducted across 18 states in 2015, reaching around 10,000 students in over 450 schools to provide vital baseline data.
GPE has also supported global and regional activities to strengthen learning assessment systems, particularly through the Assessment for Learning (A4L) initiative, which is working to strengthen learning assessment systems and to promote a holistic measurement of learning. A4L focuses on three components:
- facilitating partner countries to conduct comprehensive analyses of their national learning assessment systems;
- supporting regional networks on learning assessment in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific; and
- promoting understanding of the assessment of 21st century skills and the design of assessment tools in this area.
Taken together, these GPE efforts aim to contribute to improved learning outcomes in partner countries. But we recognise that no single organization working alone can make real headway. As our name demonstrates, we are all about partnership, and we will continue to seize every opportunity to work with the UIS and other education leaders worldwide to improve learning outcomes for children.
About the authors
Élisé Miningou is an Education Economist working within the GPE Results and Performance team. He holds a PhD in development economics from the University of Sherbrooke in Canada. As a researcher, his areas of interest include education financing, efficiency measurement and applied econometrics. Prior to joining GPE, Élisé worked as an economist with the Work Bank Education Global Practice, co-authoring several knowledge products including public expenditure reviews and policy briefs on various topics. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Eliseem11
Ramya Vivekanandan, Senior Education Specialist, has been GPE’s thematic lead on learning assessment since 2017. Prior to joining GPE, Ramya was Team Leader for Quality of Education at UNESCO Bangkok, where she established and managed the Network on Education Quality Monitoring in the Asia-Pacific (NEQMAP). She has also worked for UNESCO HQ in Paris, mostly on teacher policy. Before UNESCO, Ramya worked to support girls’ education and teacher education in sub-Saharan Africa with the Ministry of Pre-University and Civic Education in Guinea, Save the Children US in Malawi and Creative Associates International in Senegal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ramya_viv
This blog was also published by the GPE.