Measuring progress toward SDG 4 in Kenya, Zambia, and Palestine

With the sustainable development agenda recently approved the U.N. General Assembly, efforts to improve learning and outcomes around the world for the next 15 years will be led by Sustainable Development Goal 4. Here, we check in with three policymakers serving as LMTF 2.0 Learning Champions to gather their perspectives on what assessment challenges they are facing, how Goal 4 can help, and what’s still needed from the international community.

Working better with national governments in Kenya

In Kenya, data collected from examinations oftentimes serve as the sole determinant of student learning. “Teachers purchase commercial tests at a local shop,” Darius Ogotu from the Kenyan Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology said. “They administer these tests in addition to other forms of assessment and use the results to determine whether the learner has acquired expected skills and competencies.” Ogotu raised concerns about the fact that these assessments are not aligned with the curriculum and are often of poor quality. “A child may be forced to sit for more than 10 different tests, and what is being assessed is not clear,” Ogotu said. He further added that the grade students receive on these “mock exams” is not indicative of their competencies.

Recently, Kenya eliminated school rankings as a country-wide effort to shift focus from exam results to the teaching and learning processes. “There was too much emphasis on summative evaluation, which made teaching and learning geared toward examinations,” Ogotu said. Kenya is currently working on a plan to implement school-based assessment and emphasize school-based solutions to support teachers in developing assessment tools. Learners’ concerns are also taken into account and have proven to be equally influential. “In Kenya, we have a children’s government. Children are democratically elected and sit as a government to discuss with school management key issues they would like addressed,” he said. “Assessment is also a big issue for them.”

In response to issues surrounding assessment, a new “meriting tool” has been developed to assess learning in a holistic manner. “We are piloting this tool now and hope that at the end of the piloting process in three months, we can analyze the results and form a basis from which to comprehensively assess various aspects of teaching and learning in schools,” Ogotu said. He added that Kenya’s goal is to create a forum that will allow for active discussions and dialogue in order to address gaps and collectively develop solutions.

Ensuring that the measurement of Goal 4 includes assessment for learning and incorporates indicators that track each step of the learning process is critical to adequately measuring student learning, says Ogotu. “It is my hope that the international community can look beyond literacy, numeracy, and enrollment indicators,” he said. “We need to look at the holistic development of the child, as someone who can not only read and write and has mathematical capabilities but as a human being who can live with other people in society and be productive, in a sustainable manner.”

Efficient resource mobilization geared toward national priorities and indicators is critical, especially for countries looking to achieve quality education. “There should be a coordinated, organized response to country needs, where donors and partners are working with governments,” Ogotu said. He further described that issues arise when international aid is not institutionalized within government priorities and disregards accountability. “If your intention is to help a child, then you should be accountable to that child,” he said. “Donor policies need to take into account country-led initiatives that have been prioritized through a process and that reflect what the country considers as needs.”

Focusing on strategic funding in Zambia

Teacher education programs in Zambia lack an assessment component and there is little technical expertise and few opportunities for teachers to build on skills within the country. “We set a goal for moving toward continuous assessment or school-based assessment as a vehicle for improving teaching and learning,” Angel Kaliminwa of the Examinations Council said. He added that the ministry’s recent move to revise the curricula at all levels has called for newly developed tools to be reconsidered.

In response to these challenges, a committee of stakeholders with a common interest in assessment was convened. Kaliminwa further added that the committee includes government and quasi-government officials as well as members of civil society and organizations such as UNICEF, USAID, and DFID, among others. Within the ministry, a budget line was also allocated for school-based assessment. Ongoing collaborative efforts with the teacher education department has allowed for a module on assessment to be included in pre-service training in Zambia.

Goal 4’s strong focus on learning will be more relevant than MDG 2 for countries such as Zambia that experienced high enrollment rates in the 1990s. “The main issue at hand is whether learners are acquiring competencies and skills,” Kaliminwa said. “The indicators need to reflect what is happening at the classroom level so that teachers can make connections to what they observe in their classrooms. We need to move away from the blanket-kind of indicators even if it is easier to collect data at the global level.”

Sophisticated, strategic plans that attract donors will allow for assessment to be viewed as a public good. “Donors must look at assessment as a public good, and that can only happen if they recognize country-level efforts,” Kaliminwa said. “Sometimes, I am surprised at how much more funding sports attract compared to education.” Donors should focus on long-term benefits rather than immediate ones. “The benefits will be seeing that this world is literate, numerate, and becomes scientific,” Kaliminwa said.

A need for donor coordination in Palestine

A constantly evolving political climate and insufficient technical expertise is an ongoing challenge for Palestine and the surrounding region. “Assessment and evaluation is heavily focused on proving—not improving,” Mohammed Matar of the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education said. “In order to plan and develop, you need stability but with new changes every one or two years, plans for sustainable development or reform are compromised.”

In 2000, Palestine received a mandate from the Finnish government to establish an assessment and evaluation unit with the goal to provide qualitative and quantitative indicators on student outcomes. After the establishment of the unit, ministry officials met with policymakers, faculty members at universities, and teachers to distribute information pamphlets on assessment and evaluation in all Palestinian schools. “Changing a culture and changing people’s mentality is time-consuming but was necessary in our case,” Matar said. He shared that now national assessments take place every two years in core subjects.

Palestine is currently working to introduce a national strategy for educational evaluation. Matar explained that it will be the first of its kind for the country as well as the region. “We are working to include life skills, information and communications technology literacy, and civic education, which were introduced to us two years ago through LMTF,” Matar explained. “We hope to assess these areas through school-based assessment.” Matar added that early childhood development is also a national priority. “We hope to pilot tools available from LMTF partners or other agencies to provide indicators to the minister and policymakers.”

The emphasis on quality education for all is welcomed in Palestine. Similar to Zambia, Palestine experienced a dramatic increase in enrollment rates, making enrollment indicators no longer as relevant. “Indicators need to focus on whether teachers perform well in the classroom and if the learner can think critically and is able to transfer skills to their life,” Matar said.

Ineffective donor coordination is a challenge in achieving quality education. “In Palestine, we have more than 40 education interventions, each from different donors,” Matar said. “At one point, we were assessing preschool students using three different models from three different organizations.” Matar pointed out that donors must first understand the challenges a country faces and develop a clear mandate, which will help policymakers effectively tackle development issues.

Looking forward to the Goal 4 indicators

As our colleagues attest, relying on simple access indicators or even literacy and numeracy rates as sole indicators of education quality is no longer relevant. More than ever before, country leaders are looking for better and more sustainable ways to capture students’ learning outcomes and experiences. Kenya, Zambia, and Palestine are building systems to track previously overlooked learning domains and education levels to prepare students for success in the 21st century. As the indicators for the SDG framework are finalized by March 2016, the indicators for Goal 4 will need to reinforce this demand from countries for a comprehensive framework of indicators and the technical and financial resources to measure progress against them.