An entitlement to learning assessment support

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, and Luis Crouch, 1st Vice-chair UIS Governing Board

This blog proposes a fund to help low- and lower-middle-income countries finance the cost of learning assessment in a sustainable way, empowering them to take ownership of choices that best suit their national needs. Such a fund would aim to solve a collective action problem, often linked to tied aid, that has led to inefficient choices and a large data gap.

As discussed in a recent blog, most low- and lower-middle-income countries do not have data to measure SDG indicator 4.1.1a that measures the percentage of children achieving a minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics by grade 2 or 3. Even with slightly better coverage, SDG indicator 4.1.1b, which measures learning at the end of primary, faces similar challenges. Low coverage, low frequency but also weak institutionalization of assessment are problems that need to be addressed urgently.

On the technical side, under the leadership of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and with support from partner organizations, solutions under a common framework with a suite of tools, standards and options have been developed in the last few years to help countries improve their learning data, building on their existing assessments. However, despite this technical progress, the current assessment market, remains plagued with inefficiencies and inequities (discussed here and here), linked to a lack of coordination behind a common vision among stakeholders.

The proposed fund could be implemented immediately by the Coalition for Foundational Learning. But it implies a drastic shift from the current donor-driven to a country-driven approach, supported by a guide for countries to understand the assessment options and a national assessment strategic vision.

The need for a fund: Inefficiencies in the assessment market

Upper-middle- and high-income countries self-fund but also shape the assessment programs in which they participate. For instance, they have supported organizations such as OECD and IEA to develop PISA and TIMSS with a governance mechanism and an assessment focus that reflect their preferences. They have also institutionalized the assessment function, which allows data to be used for public policy.

In contrast, low- and lower-middle-income countries are far more constrained in their assessment choices. Programs on offer typically started as an initiative of some external donor. All too often, countries ‘choose’ to participate in assessments for which they can get funding and technical assistance. In many cases, that interest is ‘generated’ or influenced by funders’ salesmanship.

In one case, the UNESCO Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education (LLECE), the government of Spain provided the initial funding but eventually the program became part of participating countries’ national budgets, and national units/institutes of evaluation took on the assessment coordination.

Other assessments are facing institutionalization and sustainable funding challenges. These include donor funded PASEC (managed by CONFEMEN in francophone Africa) and PILNA (managed by EQAP in the Pacific), but also SEACMEQ (self-managed in anglophone eastern and southern Africa).

Alternative structures include three foundational learning assessments: citizen-led ASER in South Asia and Uwezo in eastern Africa; the foundational learning module under the UNICEF MICS household survey program; and EGRA and EGMA, that were funded by the United States and a variety of other official donors and private philanthropists. Almost no country has institutionalized these assessments.

Last but not least, a few low- and lower-middle-income countries run their own national assessments. In some cases, they have achieved institutionalization and fund the assessment from their budget.

The plethora of assessments has created a fragmented market with the following problems:

Not all these issues can be addressed using the same solutions. The proposed fund and a consumer guide for countries can address failures 1-2 and 4-5 (some more thoroughly than others), but not 3. While not a complete solution, a fund would be a substantial improvement on the current situation. The fund would work as follows:

  1. The fund finances the purchase of assessment services by countries. It operates as a subsidy with an estimated minimum support to countries that express demand.
  2. The fund receives funding from donors to ensure low- and lower-middle-income countries measure learning outcomes at least in reading and mathematics. It can explore other areas later.
  3. The fund is underpinned by a guidance document, a sort of ‘consumer’s guide’, that helps countries evaluate which type of assessments best fits their needs. The guide would be published by UIS, as the custodian agency of indicator 4.1.1, and would explain the technical and operational characteristics of various assessment options, including their suitability for reporting.
  4. The fund also finances national assessments, which would require a one-off effort to evaluate their documentation and quality and to support improvement strategies.
  5. The fund is designed to help countries position the assessment they ‘buy’ within a long-term national strategy on assessment, ensuring ‘purchases’ are part of a capacity development plan.
  6. The fund supports countries’ assessment capacity with the aim of institutionalizing it. When a country receives support from the fund, there is a commitment to strengthen its own assessment strategy and capacity development in the long run.
  7. The fund covers the total cost for low-income countries. But as a country becomes wealthier and develops capacity, it co-finances assessments with the fund to help build sustainable assessment systems that will eventually no longer need the fund’s support.
  8. The fund is virtual to reduce administration costs.
  9. The fund helps shape the assessment market to increase supply, improve cost transparency, and make the market more accessible. The fund works directly with assessment suppliers or technical partners to facilitate technical assistance at a lower, affordable cost.

The following diagram summarizes how the fund would work in graphical form. In short, the fund would tackle current market inefficiencies and injustices. It would make it possible for countries to choose assessments based on their needs. It would untie aid funding from the type of assessment a donor would prefer a country to take for reasons other than the country’s best interests. It would increase cost transparency, and it would help countries decide what is best for them.

We look forward to discussing this proposal when the global community of national education statisticians meets in first ever Conference on Education Data and Statistics we are organising at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in February 2024.

 

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2 comments

  1. Thanks Silvia and Luis. Great blog and great idea. Can’t we get GPE to fund this? It seems the kind of ‘market failure’ that GPE is well placed to address as a well capitalised global fund. GPE itself, according to its 2023 Results Report, is unable to report on 5 out of its 6 results report indicators on learning outcomes; so there’s a case for it to do so anyway.

  2. Peter, yes, that would make sense. I am not as connected with the GPE leadership these days as I have been in the past, so I would not be the one to run with the idea. But it makes total sense to me, unless there is something I am not seeing.

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