A sound investment: The benefits of large-scale learning assessments

Children waiting in line in a school in Sierra Leone. Credit: GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer

Children waiting in line in a school in Sierra Leone.

Credit: GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer

It's time to make a much stronger case for investment in the data we need to reach Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on education. The clock is ticking towards the 2030 deadline for quality education for every child and adolescent but, as recent data show, there are still too many out of school and too many who are not learning what they need to know.

Such evidence provides a much-needed 'carrot and stick.' Good data is a very attractive carrot, helping decision makers to target their available resources for maximum impact. Strong evidence is also a useful stick, helping to hold governments and key stakeholders to account for their policies and investment choices.

Making the case for large-scale assessment of learning

There is, however, a problem – particularly on measuring learning outcomes. Not all countries conduct national assessments or participate in cross-national (regional or international) assessments of learning. This poses a real challenge for the basic information needed to monitor and report on progress towards SDG 4. So it's time to set out the financial advantages of educational assessments, and most particularly the large-scale cross-national assessments, that can support the pursuit of national education priorities.

A new synthesis paper from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) explains how many countries already use data from these large-scale assessments to enhance their educational practice and policy. It also spells out the implications for investment in education resources and the potential challenges.

The paper draws on the Review of the Use of Cross-National Assessment Data in Educational Practice and Policy and builds on the UIS Investment Case for SDG 4 Data, which compares the resources needed to produce the global and thematic indicators in relation to the costs of doing business as usual. It is also aligned with work by Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to unpack what actually works to get kids into school, keep them there and learning.

Investments in cross-national assessments have had clear benefits, as shown in the table below. In these examples, we have seen more resources being targeted to various aspects of education

Resources invested on the basis of cross-national assessments

Area of resource investment Examples of actions taken by countries
Teachers, training, and professional development
  • New online in-service professional development programs for teachers and leaders
  • Teacher training workshops/integrating technology into classroom activities
  • Incentives to participate in in-service teacher training programs, encouraging high-performing students to join the teaching profession through incentives, and increasing salaries
  • Improving teachers' pedagogical skills and teaching literacy
  • Incentives for teachers
Education funding
  • Increasing budget for education to provide primary and secondary education with additional financial resources to reduce class size, raise teacher salaries, and develop infrastructure
  • Several initiative investments to strengthen literacy development, including a generous Quality Education Fund
  • Funding programs to promote reading and literacy
  • Donors helping to stimulate a policy response in terms of resource allocation in part through the administration of the assessment
  • Interventions based on the findings, which are also used to influence policy dialogue and action
Education materials and time resources
  • An increase in classroom instruction time dedicated to mathematics leading to improved scores
  • Reduction in teacher shortages as a result of policy changes and efforts
  • Hybrid assessment data being incorporated into a national assessment system to inform curriculum and instruction
  • Hybrid assessment data to inform the development of materials and strategies for teaching and continuous assessment
  • Influencing the national educational program, resulting in the allocation of significant funding to the building of classrooms, providing instructional materials, and addressing out-of-school children through non-formal education programs

The variations in the extent to which countries have benefited from cross-national assessments only serve to reinforce the argument for more investment, with the countries making the greatest use of the findings reaping the greatest benefits.

Figure 1 shows the geographic distribution of large-scale learning assessments. The data gaps are apparent, with many countries – particularly in South Asia and parts of Africa – not participating in any form of cross-national assessment. Some gaps are linked to lack of coverage: for example, a regional assessment for South Asia does not yet exist.

Some gaps are linked to national capacity issues, with countries lacking the financial or technical capacity to administer national learning assessments or join cross-national learning assessments. We must also recognize that some countries are reluctant to join regional or international assessments out of concern of being compared to those with better resourced education systems. The vast majority of non-participating countries are either low-income or lower-middle-income countries.

Figure 1. Geographic distribution of large-scale learning assessments

Source: UIS Quick Guide #2: Making the Case for a Learning Assessment
Source: UIS Quick Guide #2: Making the Case for a Learning Assessment

Figure 2 summarizes the degree to which countries have used cross-national and regional assessments to shape their education systems. The darker the blue: the greater the application. For example, New Zealand is making more use of – and gaining more from – cross-national assessment data than Canada and the United States. They, in turn, are benefiting more than Brazil and the Russian Federation. A comparison between Figures 1 and 2 shows that some countries participate in large-scale assessments but do not apply the data from these assessments directly to educational policy and planning.

Figure 2. Countries using cross-national assessments in educational policy and practice

Figure 2. Countries using cross-national assessments in educational policy and practice
Source: Review of the Use of Cross-National Assessment Data in Educational Practice and Policy

Better data for better education

By showing the clear benefits, we want to help mobilize the necessary resources – whether domestic or supported by donors – to close the data gaps on cross-national assessments, and to emphasize the financial and student performance benefits of applying the lessons from assessment results to targeted policy making and to operational practice. This would be a 'win-win' for the effectiveness of national education systems and for the production of internationally comparable data.

We already know the immense value of education itself. Study after study has confirmed the vast benefits of education for each individual and for every society. We know that education plays a critical role in helping people to lift themselves out of poverty, improve their own quality of life and increasing their chances of contributing to the economic well-being of their communities and countries.

It is high time we positioned the collection and meaningful use of education data as a crucial part of this education narrative – as one of the most fundamental prerequisites for progress towards the world's education goals.

Teaching and Learning


Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics
Dr Silvia Montoya is the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Dr Montoya has extensive experience in a wide range of national and international initiatives to improve the quality, management...
Senior Education Advisor, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
David Coleman is a Senior Education Advisor at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He has extensive experience in education for development in Asia and the Pacific. David has...

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