The need for a regional learning assessment and improving learning outcomes in South Asia

This past May representatives of member states, international organizations, civil society, and private organizations gathered in Incheon for the World Education Forum, where they sought to agree on goals, targets, and a framework for action that will help to achieve quality education in the post-2015 development world.  As the U.N. General Assembly approaches, the progress in developing indicators, working with countries, and having the hard conversations over the next several months will prove essential to ensuring that the quality learning for all children and youth is a reality. However, in order to meet these ambitious goals we need learning assessment that meets international standards for rigor but responds to country demand for being contextual.

Similar to the experience worldwide, South Asia, in its efforts to provide universal primary education, has achieved considerable success in improving access, enrolment, and other input-based measures of schooling quality like facilities and infrastructure, improving teacher salaries and training, hiring more teachers to reduce pupil-teacher ratios, and expenditure on student benefits such as textbooks, and mid-day meals. The South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation’s (SAARC) New Delhi declaration of October 2014 acknowledges that while there has been educational progress in the member countries, challenges remain in qualitative improvement of education and attainment by learners of the expected learning outcomes.

The World Bank points out that the poor quality of education undermines South Asia’s competitiveness, economic growth, and efforts to alleviate poverty. Given that it has the world’s largest working-age population, a quarter of the world’s middle-class consumers, and the largest number (44 percent) of the world’s poor, it is important that quality of learning in South Asia improve in order for growth and development, as it has the potential to impact the rest of the world.

In the quest for quality education, it is sometimes assumed that the challenge is an easy one to meet. But experience suggests that this is not true. Between 2007 and 2011, India increased its expenditure on elementary education by 80 percent, but average learning outcomes reported by ASER surveys have slightly declined.

As education systems move forward in the poor/fair/good/great continuum, the need for large-scale assessments that provide granular information assume greater importance. The starting point for improving quality in learning are in these fundamental questions: Are children in school really learning and understanding what is being taught? How much are they retaining? What do children at different levels know and are able to do? What misconceptions and common errors do children demonstrate? Are children of some countries doing better than others, and if so, what cross-learning and remedial strategies do these suggest for other countries?

Yet, for these benchmark assessments to be considered valid and the results largely accepted, adequate cognizance is needed to address the contextual challenges, linguistic complexities, and cultural appropriateness.

Realizing the need for a diverse array of assessments as a one-shoe-fits-all approach may no longer be appropriate, many regions of the world have started to include  regional learning assessments into the repertoire. Regional assessment initiatives such as SACMEQ (Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality), LLECE (Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education), PASEC (CONFEMEN Programme for the Analysis of Education Systems) are currently conducted in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. New initiatives such as the READ (Russian Education Aid for Development) along with World Bank initiatives for its partner countries such as SABER (Systems Approach for Better Education Results) provide assessments and comparative data on education policies and institutions in the Central Asian region and parts of Africa. Recently, a regional assessment initiative has been launched in South East Asia led by UNICEF and the SEAMEO (Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization) planned for 2015 with the aim of helping the Southeast Asian countries systematically strengthen their education systems.

Like many regions around the world, the education systems in South Asian countries have contextually based challenges:

  • High influx of first generation learners into the system in the last decade
  • Irregular attendance of children during the school year
  • Greater diversity among subgroups in terms of socioeconomic and linguistic background than in other parts of the world which reduces effectiveness of teachers teaching in the dominant language
  • Variation of about one-half to two-thirds in student achievement attributed to school-specific factors such as teachers and resources which is more than other regions of the world
  • Low levels of learning compounded by prevalence of rote-learning (which emphasizes procedural learning and memory) resulting in insufficient diagnostic information from assessments designed for testing higher order skills and higher ability
  • Inadequate systemic and institutional capacity for robust learning measurement mechanisms

To date, there have not been any initiatives in South Asia to create a regional assessment which could help inform and guide the quality agenda in education. However, during the Learning Metric Task Force (LMTF) 1.0 deliberations, stakeholders from South Asia expressed the need for a collaborative agenda on regional assessments that would be tailored to the national and regional contexts, and at the same time responsive to the global drive for better data on learning. To build upon the momentum created by LMTF 1.0, the Center for Universal Education and Brookings India has been conducting a landscape analysis of the readiness and support for a regional learning assessment in South Asia since October 2014. The study is mapping the appetite for a regional assessment through in-person visits to India, Nepal and Bangladesh, where interviews and focus group discussions have been held with the SAARC secretariat, key government officials, multilateral agencies, international experts, developers of assessments, and civil society stakeholders. Existing efforts for measuring learning in the region have also been analysed through secondary research using policy documents, assessment tools, protocols, and reports available within India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. The study has looked into the technical, institutional, political, and financial supports that would be necessary to sustain a regional learning assessment. The final report is planned for a regional launch in India later in June, with hopes that recommendations for next steps can continue to bolster the momentum for a regional learning initiative in South Asia.