Right now, we in the global education community are at a crossroads in how we measure our success. Our attention is divided across many priorities, and we risk squandering the opportunity given to us by the massive gains in access to schooling under the previous education goal if we don’t focus tightly on certain issues. One of these issues is how we measure whether children are learning.
The fact is, as documented recently by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and confirmed by our own PASEC studies, around half of students around the world are not acquiring even basic reading and math skills. In PASEC estimates this is even worse at the foundational level (Grade 2), where 70% of children are not being equipped with the reading and writing skills needed to progress well in their further schooling. For mathematics the number is 50% -- still a dire problem.
Francophone countries commit to quality learning assessments
The Conférence des ministres de l’Éducation des États et gouvernements de la Francophonie (CONFEMEN), created in 1960 and including 44 countries and governments, supports member countries in the improvement in the quality of their education systems through CONFEMEN’s learning assessment program called PASEC (Programme d’analyse des systèmes éducatifs). Through PASEC, CONFEMEN is committed to the sorts of measurement needed to keep the global community focused on learning as a critical issue.
By learning from examples in high quality assessments like PASEC, that can focus on the foundation years, and by embracing the approaches for global reporting developed by UIS, we can realize the aspirations of SDG 4 that all students receive inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities.
PASEC supports interventions aimed at improving the quality of education in CONFEMEN member countries. Its assessments are based on the measurement of skills in reading and mathematics at the start and end of primary education (2nd and 6th grades) and the analysis of factors that contribute to academic success, in order to propose thoughts and actions for improvements.
PASEC also reinforces the capacities of countries to plan and carry out learning assessments. Since its creation, it has strengthened the capacities of national teams concerning several themes, including the creation of instruments, sampling, data processing and development of reports.
PASEC collaborates closely with national teams for the entire evaluation process. For example, it ensures that countries can scrupulously follow sampling procedures to enable quality sampling in schools. PASEC also ensures that the data produced is of the highest quality so that reliable data is obtained at the end of the evaluation. Checkpoints are set up by PASEC to identify and correct any anomalies in the data as soon as possible.
PASEC results from 10 African countries
PASEC 2014, our most recent evaluation, is one of our most systematic efforts so far. Ten countries participated in this evaluation: Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Senegal and Togo. PASEC published both international and national reports that analyzed data from the 10 countries and provided cross-national and sub-national comparative findings.
According to PASEC 2014 results, more than 70% of students at the beginning of primary education (2nd grade) have not attained the expected skill level in reading/writing, and more than 50% have not attained the expected skill level in mathematics. At the end of primary education (6th grade), nearly 60% of students are below the expected skill level in both subjects. These results demonstrate that despite progress in access to education, more schooling is not leading to more learning.
Data from assessments like PASEC are critical to understanding whether children are learning basic reading and mathematics in their first two years of formal schooling. We have shown that it is both possible and desirable to collect internationally comparable data on these domains in grade 2, in a low-stakes manner that provides useful feedback to education policymakers.
PASEC data contributes to monitoring of SDG 4
As the next UIS Education Digest will document, our data allow us to document a crisis in the foundation years consisting of lack of preparation for the first few grades, a tendency towards repetition and resource wastage, and low learning levels—all as a related problem. Having the data needed to document these issues is vital.
Taking what we learned from PASEC 2014, PASEC is currently preparing its second international assessment, which covers fifteen countries: ten PASEC 2014 countries plus Gabon, Mali, Madagascar, Guinea and DRC. For this second evaluation, PASEC is introducing a new in-depth survey of teachers.
This has implications for SDG 4 indicator 4.1.1(a): proportion of children and young people in grades 2/3 achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics. The UIS is currently developing a methodology for this indicator in response to feedback from the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG indicators and member states, and has submitted a comprehensive work plan to the IAEG-SDGs.
We are pleased that the proposed methodology will support countries in using data from national, regional, and international assessments in which they already participate (as long as these assessments meet identified quality standards) and link the data to a global standard of minimum proficiency.
Right now we are at significant risk if SDG indicators that track progress in foundational skills are dropped. Currently indicator 4.1.1(a) is listed as a tier III indicator, which means that it requires further methodological development.
PASEC (and other regional and international) efforts show that this can be done and its importance in helping us understand the dynamics of the foundation years, which are so important if we are to achieve higher primary school completion rates with significant levels of learning.