National learning assessments: there’s more to gain than valuable data


learning-blog-1By Carmela Maria Salzano, International Development Consultant

While the drive to benchmark global progress in improving education outcomes, and to increase the evidence-base for education policy making, has imbued the dialogue around monitoring SDG 4.1 with a strongly technical hue, the GEM Report’s World Education Blog has underscored that “…this is far from just a technical debate. Rather, it goes to the heart of what we aspire to in education for the next generation.” 

Countries’ national learning assessments show which outcomes are valued, and how they handle equity

4-1National learning assessments, which are a key source of the global data for SDG 4.1, show the extent to which ‘all girls and boys….[are acquiring] relevant and effective learning outcomes’ while revealing important information on the types of knowledge and skills now valued by different education systems. But they can also tell us much about how far governments have integrated their commitments to equity and raising learning standards for all learners across all components of their education systems.

Beyond the traditional markers of expenditures per child, curriculum, pedagogy and teaching practice, the importance of national examinations systems as a key driver of equity is often overlooked. Yet the influence of assessment practice on ensuring equitable outcomes becomes apparent when we consider how many (and what types) of learners are included, or left out, by current methods of testing.

To this extent, the current spotlight on national learning assessments opens up an important window of opportunity to discuss the deeper transformations needed in national examinations systems worldwide. Such discussions may contribute to the development of mechanisms for recording the broader spectrum of skills and higher-order knowledge now recognized as ‘relevant and effective’ outcomes of learning within our new global education goal. At the very least, the global dialogue may help to stress the need for more inclusive assessment policies enabling a greater diversity of learners to have their skills recognized and validated.

We must measure a broader range of skills, whichever solution we choose

Many countries have reformulated their standards for learning over the past 15 years, redefining what students should know and be able to do in the 21st century. Effective thinking, problem solving, creativity and the ability to work cooperatively are acknowledged as central to an individuals’ full development, and as critical in preparing young people for the world of work and life in society.

Higher-order skills — recall, analysis, comparison, inference and evaluation — are also seen as the skills of the twenty-first-century citizen.  And as the education paradigm shifts from ‘learners as beneficiaries’ to ‘learners as protagonists’, the capacities of students to design and influence their own learning process, and to make use of lifelong learning opportunities, have emerged as another key attribute of quality learning.

This shift in competencies and expectations has had massive implications for national education systems, requiring an approach to education that differs from past models  and a revisiting of existing curricula and learning contents, such as textbooks and traditional pedagogies. Less attention has been paid, however, to the implications for assessment policy.

12Many of the foundational skills, attitudes and competencies now recognized as valid outcomes of learning cannot be easily measured through standardized or summative forms of testing. Verification requires a combination of performance and project-related tasks, self-reporting and peer assessment, direct observation and qualitative data. Yet summative testing remains at the core of public examination systems at primary and lower-secondary levels in most countries, with testing only capturing narrow domains of learning at specific points in time.

One of the most obvious implications for global reporting on ‘relevant and effective learning outcomes’ is that if the global data relies solely on the information gathered through national examination systems, then it will only capture a small fraction of the learning taking place at country level – and this is assuming that national monitoring systems are in place to begin with. The endemic lack of national assessment capacity was underlined by a 2015 survey by the Global Partnership for Education revealing that only 2 in 60 countries surveyed had developed large scale assessments.

Broader measurements may then lead to more inclusive assessment policies

There may however be a silver lining. If we come to recognize the limits to what is being captured through summative testing, we may also come to acknowledge how many students are effectively marginalized by traditional assessment practices and leave school without ever having been tested to their full potential.

Critics argue that summative testing discriminates against, or pushes to the margins, those students who fare less well on academic subjects and rote forms of learning. ‘Perennial under-achievers’ tend to absorb the idea that they lack ability and subsequently lose motivation. In the worst cases, they may disengage from their schooling altogether.

It follows, then, that if governments are truly committed to equity and inclusion targets and to raising learning outcomes, the assessment systems they put in place must offer a fairer chance to all learners to demonstrate their learning levels and to have their skills validated. It means introducing greater flexibility into assessment practice and giving more social legitimacy to work-oriented systems and other learning pathways known to have a powerful effect on reducing gaps in student achievement. This seems especially important for those students who don’t find their place within conventional schooling or through standardized testing.

International development partners must seize the opportunity of the new UN Sustainable Development Agenda to encourage Ministries of Education to broaden what they measure – recognizing the diversity of skills now needed by all learners, the many differences in student’s learning styles, and the multiple types of learning taking place in the classroom and beyond.



  1. Are not many of the skills “intrinsic”, developed through social interaction at home and in school, through extra-curricular activity and in work too? Are not many of the skills for work, acquired in the work environment, that even today in modern economies, the lack of qualifications are the initial barrier to employment…and is why those who can afford it pay for private tutors to improve their grades? Education for the majority is about employment, and employers seek out grades and qualifications above all else? Secondly, teaching these “new skills” and ongoing assessment requires more qualified teachers, time in the curriculum and money, which is limited on all fronts, and while “education for all” and inclusivity are great ideas, the practicality is that resources are spread too thinly.
    I have a very simplistic view. (maybe I am simple:) There is a lot of bumph around the SDG4, lots of expert analysis, and committees and a multitude of different organisations (at the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning 34 organisations were represented), why not focus. Literacy and numeracy – literacy in particular. You can measure improvements in literacy it builds skills, knowledge, gain information, empathy, creativity, and by reading more you get better at it. Surely that is the starting point?

  2. Dear Bfwandfox, I agree with you, there are many practical difficulties and resource constraints in measuring such a diverse range of skills. There are also obvious benefits to keeping it simple by focusing on core, age-appropriate literacy and numeracy skills within a set of common metrics that will produce internationally comparable data – although here I imagine that many low income countries will still encounter significant difficulties in survey design, data collection and subsequently transforming that data into useful pedagogic tools that can be used by teachers to advance learning. After all, this is what it’s all about.
    Or maybe not….

    The essential point I was getting at is that children need to feel recognition and validation for what they can do, their skills, creativity and talents, not just what they know. And we should do more to make more children feel validated by the years they spend in schooling. Many public exam systems accross the world are not set up to do that. Recognition can be a great confidence builder and sets children up to aim higher and go further.

    Again, as you mention, many of the skills now needed to get ahead are acquired elsewhere and fall outside of the conventional box of schooling. So what are we saying? Does this mean that if a primary school-age child does not reach a standard score on a test for his/her age level, we can neatly summise that no learning is taking place, or that a child isn’t developing?

    There may be a multitude of cognitive leaps and many layers of social and emotional development taking place, but we might never know because, as Pauline Rose wrote in a recent blog post for the Global Partnership for Education, the child may be unable to read the questions on the test, let alone know what the correct answer is.

Leave a Reply