A universal learning scale: ‘Fit for purpose’ instead of the ‘perfect fit’

A look at how to measure progress next to the future education targets. Who should measure what, how and why?

May 20, 2015 by Silvia Montoya, UNESCO Institute for Statistics
8 minutes read
Enumerator giving the Early Grade Mathematics Assessment (EGMA)Marikani Government School, Nairobi, Kenya (c) GPE/Deepa Srikantaiah

The excitement is palpable here in Incheon at the World Education Forum, where Ministers, UN agency leaders and civil society organizations, teachers and students have gathered to put their final touches on the post-2015 education framework. Believe it or not, this may be the easy part of the process. What is far harder is deciding how to measure progress next to the future education targets. Who should measure what, how and why?

Let’s begin with pragmatism. We cannot expect all countries to measure the outcomes of every child in every area of learning using the same methodologies in a way that will produce internationally-comparable data. So instead of striving towards the ‘perfect fit’, let’s focus on indicators that are ‘fit for purpose’ and can help countries produce and use core sets of data to better target policies and monitor progress.

Presently, there are two options for ‘fit for purpose’ indicators:

  • Use indicators based on nationally-defined standards for a limited number of domains: e.g. xx% of students in a given country met the nationally-defined minimum standard for numeracy skills at the end of Grade x.  
  • Use indicators derived from an empirically validated universal learning scale.

The first option looks straightforward but won’t lead to internationally-comparable results. Minimum standards for early reading, for example, vary widely across countries even though research shows that most countries’ curricula tend to be quite similar. In addition, reporting solely against national standards might bring about a tendency for countries to either lower their standards or exaggerate the percentage of children meeting them.   

The second option is trying to fill this gap. It will require time, resources and consultation but it will lay the foundations for high-quality and comparable data. Here is a summary of the major steps needed to move forward to produce these data without falling into a rigid trap.

  1. We would suggest starting from reading and numeracy skills, which are the foundational skills most widely assessed already. A gradual approach should be taken to define a core set of skills and competencies along a universal learning scale that children should acquire at different stages or levels of education based on research and consultations with ministries of education.
  2. Next we need to develop appropriate benchmarks, methodological frameworks and capacity-building initiatives to help countries use existing or new learning assessments to monitor progress and use the data for policymaking. Right from the start, special focus must be given to equity-related issues to help generate the data needed to improve system-level monitoring, instruction in classrooms and targeted interventions.
  3. Making the leap from theory to practice through consensus

    Many will agree on the logic of a universal learning scale, but few can envisage the technical issues behind such an idea and their policy implications.

    Finding agreement on this will require generating consensus from the community of technical experts, policymakers (i.e. education ministries), non-governmental organizations and assessment organizations. In particular, the dialogue must be structured in such a way that countries can agree on standards of skills and competencies that are valid for international reporting.

    This community would also need to ensure that best practices are used to develop the methodological resources and capacity-building initiatives that countries will need to set benchmarks and make use of the resulting data. In short, this approach will reinforce efforts to foster a culture of evidence-based policymaking by making innovative use of assessment data.

    We would like to stress that all of this work would be building on and contributing to a wide range of initiatives, such as:

    • The Catalogue of Learning Assessments, developed by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, to provide standardized information about all system-level assessments administered in primary and lower secondary education programs around the world;
    • Assessment initiatives underway at the country level, including citizen-led (e.g. ASER, Beekunko, Jangandoo and Uwezo), international (e.g. EGMA and EGRA) and regional (e.g. LLECE, PASEC and SACMEQ) in addition to other international assessments led by well-established organizations (such as ICCS, PIRLS, PISA, TIMSS); and
    • Emerging initiatives such as the International Platform to Support Learning Assessment Systems, as championed by the Global Partnership for Education.

    Throughout this process, we must be realistic. The health sector has been working on outcomes, such as measures of overall health and life expectancy, for a long time. This does not mean that we should avoid the challenge but learn from the experience of others.

    Tell us what you think

    The UIS is discussing the feasibility of this initiative with a wide range of experts before organizing more formal consultations. In the meanwhile, we would like to learn your views. Please send your answers to the questions below by email to uis.information@unesco.org or post them on this blog.

    Key questions:

    1. Do you see the value of developing a universal learning scale and benchmarks on reading and mathematics?
    2. If not, what approaches for global monitoring of learning outcomes do you suggest?
    3. If so, please answer the following:
      • a. Should a learning scale be developed by region?
      • b. With respect to the benchmarks and indicators, which age range or which grades should they cover?
      • c. Should they focus on primary and secondary school-age children only, or extend to early childhood and/or adults?
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1. ULS is an urgently needed next step. 2. Start with math & reading (maybe science) -- not unproblematic but most easily implemented. 3. Use both curriculum-based (like IEA) and real-world based (like PISA) instruments. 4. Test age-based grade populations at-or-near end of primary and at-or-near end of lower secondary (eg., the grade in which most children are 10 years, 14 years old). 5. Develop international core plus regional adaptations (ASEAN is a case in point, with economic integration by the end of 2015). 6. Concentrate first on primary & secondary.

1) A universal learning scale and benchmarks on reading and mathematics wold facilitate the feedback process toward improving the quality of education for all and also makes the monitoring of learning outcomes comparable.
2) As we are approaching a globalized world, fostering the minimum learning outcomes is necessary. This world provide the basis for earning to learn.
3) Such an initiative , ideally should cover all levels ;whoever it does not seem feasible.

Development of a universal learning scale (ULS) is essential for the 21st century when the world is globalized and technology enabled. ULS must measure new core competencies expected of learners to face the new world at each critical stage of the 9 years of compulsory education. Literacy, numeracy, computer skills, social values and life skills must be in the ULS.

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