A partnership for a global public good: Data to improve learning

Around 80% of countries assess learning. However, because they are based on different methodologies the results cannot be compared internationally. A new initiative by UIS could help solve this challenge.

January 22, 2019 by Silvia Montoya, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Girindre Beeharry, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Emily Woolf, UK Department for International Development (DfID)
3 minutes read
A girl solves a math problem on the blackboard. Alphabaria school, Dabola Area, Guinea
A girl solves a math problem on the blackboard. Alphabaria school, Dabola Area, Guinea
Credit: GPE/Adrien Boucher

With 617 million children and adolescents worldwide unable to read a simple sentence or handle a basic math calculation the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) has embarked on an initiative to link existing international, regional and national assessments to fill a critical data gap on learning during the early grades of education.

This is a critical learning period for children, when curriculums switch from “learning to read”, to “reading to learn”. Learning is contingent on being able to read, which is why the world, through the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4), has made it a priority to check that every child acquires the basic skills they need, particularly the ability to read fluently by Grade 3. The only way we will know if we meet this goal is to make sure we have the data to track progress (see our short film). 

Currently about 80% of countries assess learning. Yet even when they do, the results cannot be compared internationally because they are based on different methodologies. So we don’t know which countries are making good on their commitments to provide a quality education and which countries are not yet there. 

The initiative is an effort to address the problem by linking the data from the different types of learning assessments countries are already conducting. For example, it will enable comparisons between cross-national assessments, such as TIMSS and PIRLS, and regional assessments, such as those conducted by the Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education (LLECE). Through this partnership, we will significantly expand the coverage of available data and better understand where children are learning and where they are not.

Measuring learning. UIS

Addressing a need for better data

Linking assessments will not on its own solve the global learning crisis, but it will provide the data to tell us how fast we are making progress towards achieving SDG 4. All of the new methodologies and tools will be available on the UIS website, free of charge.

By offering countries these global public goods, we hope to reduce costs and expand their options on conducting learning assessments, whether that means developing their own national assessments, inserting testing items into a wider household survey, or participating in a cross-national assessment. Our hope is that more options will mean deeper understanding of the skills the world’s children are acquiring.

Building capacity at country level

Reporting is, of course, only a means to an end. What matters is whether countries are using the data to guide their policies and practices. We want to make it easy for them to participate and use the assessment data effectively. As stressed in the SDG 4 Data Digest, there hasn’t been enough emphasis on building the human capacity needed to support countries in the effective administration and use of assessment data.

Therefore, as part of the global public good on learning, a series of tools to help countries at each phase of the assessment process is being developed. The new Learning Assessment Dashboard, recently released by the UIS is an example. It shows countries the different assessments they can use to measure progress on each SDG 4 indicator.

Partnerships remain key to success

All of this requires investment and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the latest partner to join a growing number of donors, such as DFID and the Government of Norway (Norad) who are committed to this work. These donors are supporting countries and the UIS to produce and use data to improve learning, especially in the early grades, adding value to initiatives such as the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML).

The Governments of Canada and Sweden are also longstanding supporters of education data, while the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) supports national learning assessments through the Assessment for Learning (A4L) initiative and by developing the new Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) to help developing countries solve critical educational challenges.

We see growing commitment and momentum towards improving learning across countries, donors and civil society. Our new partnership will help ensure that every child acquires the critical skills in reading and mathematics, especially in the early years, as part of their right to a quality education. 


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