What the first ever large-scale assessment in Southeast Asia tells us about learning in the region

The results from the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM)—a new regional large-scale student learning assessment program, designed by and for countries in Southeast Asia—were released in December 2020. SEA-PLM 2019 data show that learning for all children is still a far-off goal and that countries face aggravated challenges ahead owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

February 01, 2021 by Dr. Ethel Agnes Pascua-Valenzuela, Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization - SEAMEO - Secretariat, and Francisco Benavides, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific
|
5 minutes read
|
A student reading a book in her classroom. Credit: UNICEF/Jim Holmes
A student reading a book in her classroom.
Credit: UNICEF/Jim Holmes

The results from the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM)—a new regional large-scale student learning assessment program, designed by and for countries in Southeast Asia—were released on December 1st, 2020. While the study reveals encouraging data, it also unveils some worrying trends on inequities and poor learning across participating countries.

Which countries participated in SEA-PLM 2019 and what does it measure?

Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines and Vietnam participated in SEA-PLM 2019. This first round focused on Grade 5 students, and on three learning domains: reading, writing and mathematics. A global citizenship questionnaire module was also developed as an experimental exercise in comparative large-scale assessment for primary education.

The program aims to generate reliable data and evidence for monitoring learning outcomes across and within countries, and to understand what factors facilitate or hinder effective learning of children along their school journey. It also enables overall national performance of participating countries to be reported for two Sustainable Development Goals indicators: SDG 4.1.1a (end of lower primary) and SDG 4.1.1b (end of primary).

SEA-PLM-2019 was jointly conducted by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) and UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific Regional Office, with the technical support of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

Map of participating countries
Map of participating countries.

What do students in South East Asia know and can do in reading, writing and mathematics?

Children’s performance on the SEA-PLM 2019 proficiency scales clearly demonstrates large variation in learning outcomes between countries and between groups of students within each country. Across participating countries, 1 out of 3 children in Grade 5 is performing at the level expected in the early years of primary education. In practice, countries are still far from reaching the agreed minimum international learning goals for all the children.

Mathematics: In some countries—Malaysia (64%) and Vietnam (92%)—a large majority of Grade 5 children can perform complex mathematical operations and interpret different data sources, while in others—Cambodia (19%), Lao PDR (8%), Myanmar (12%), Philippines (17%)—few to modest percentages of children are prepared for these tasks.

Reading: In some countries—Cambodia (11%), Lao PDR (2%), Myanmar (11%), Philippines (10%)—small to modest percentages of Grade 5 children reach the minimum proficiency level in reading suggested by the SDG 4.1.1b target. In Malaysia (58%) and Vietnam (82%), the majority of Grade 5 children achieve this level in reading.

Writing: A vast proportion of students across all six SEA-PLM 2019 countries are not demonstrating writing proficiencies normally expected of a Grade 5 student—only 18% reach the highest levels. Percentages of students in the highest levels are distributed as follow in each country: Cambodia (5%), Lao PDR (6%), Malaysia (31%), Myanmar (5%), Philippines (6%) and Vietnam (52%).

How are systems doing in terms of equity in learning outcomes?

SEA-PLM 2019 confirmed stark inequities between students’ learning outcomes according to various profiles and characteristics. For example, children from wealthier backgrounds reached higher levels of learning achievement, while those in the most deprived contexts suffered from a lack of high-quality learning opportunities. The figure below presents the score differences between the national average of those four categories per country and per each of the three learning domains.

SEA-PLM 2019 differences in average reading, mathematics and writing scores by socio-economic index quartiles
SEA-PLM 2019 differences in average reading, mathematics and writing scores by socio-economic index quartiles.

Gender dynamics also play an important role in learning, and girls on average performed better than boys, regardless of socioeconomic status or school location. However, when looking specifically at girls’ performance, girls of the upper quartile in four countries perform at a lower level than girls of the bottom quartile in the other two countries. This shows that millions of girls are still below their potential.

On the more positive side, in all countries children who attended at least one year of preschool education consistently performed better than children who had not. On average, children who felt better and safer at school performed better than children who reported less positive feelings. In all countries, higher levels of parental engagement were associated with higher average scores.

Global citizenship: what do children think about school, community and global matters?

New data was collected on children’s attitudes, values and behaviors around “global citizenship”, a concept that includes community, societal, environmental and world affairs. On average, 90% of children think it is important to learn how to protect the environment and around 85% want to learn how to solve problems in their communities.

On average, 70% of children agree they should be able to say what they think about their governments, and for all ethnic/racial groups to be treated equally. At the same time, less than half of the children participating in the study reported having some experience in speaking in an organized debate or a discussion about problems in the world.

Call to action: The way forward to improve learning amid Covid-19 and beyond

SEA-PLM 2019 presents a wide range of strong, equity-focused policy recommendations to facilitate improvement of students’ learning. These focus on improving foundational learning and skills for all students.

In light of the current Covid-19 pandemic and the forthcoming recovery phases, these recommendations are even more relevant and more urgent and the crisis can be taken as an opportunity to build better foundational learning experiences to achieve learning for all through more resilient and inclusive education systems.

The recommendations are as follows:

  1. Prioritize early learning in disadvantaged contexts.
  2. Guarantee a solid start in primary education through on-time enrollment and progression for all children, especially the disadvantaged.
  3. Ensure explicit and progressive learning standards in the curriculum of basic education, including in digital and blended learning options.
  4. Support motivated and experienced teachers and positive school environments.
  5. Use data, monitoring and research to achieve better learning.
  6. Participate in, and support SEA-PLM 2023 activities, including opportunities and challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

SEA-PLM 2019 data show that learning for all children is still a far-off goal and that countries face aggravated challenges ahead owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, the SEA-PLM program invites all countries in Southeast Asia, as well as their partners, to continue this work and improve the capacity to measure learning outcomes, use data, and allow for peer exchange on policies and practices.

In 2021, SEA-PLM Secretariat, UNICEF and SEAMEO, will continue working with countries and partners to support governments to continue analyzing and using SEA-PLM 2019 data to improve the life of every child in their countries.

UNICEF, SEA-PLM Secretariat and SEAMEO

Post a comment or
Learning assessments

Latest blogs

May 11, 2021 by GPE Secretariat
Cabo Verde: A safe return to school
Thanks to the GPE grant and support from other partners, Cabo Verde made sure that children’s learning wasn't interrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic and that students can safely return to school.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • Global and entity tokens are replaced with their values. Browse available tokens.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.