1, 2, 3 testing: Assessing learning of what, for what, and for whom?

Breaking down the debate on learning assessments and a global learning metric

A student identifies letters during the GPE supported National Learning Assessment in Sudan. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

Heated debates persist on whether or not to include a target for learning in the early grades of school and whether or not to develop a global learning metric as part of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Meanwhile, the reality is that children in all classes in Pakistan (and probably elsewhere) are being tested multiple times within a year. The real question then shifts from whether or not we should be assessing learning, to what is being tested; what is happening with all the data being collected; and can it be better used to improve learning particularly for those at risk of being left behind?

What is being tested?

In a recent visit to rural schools in Pakistan as part of our Teaching Effectively All Children (TEACh) research, teachers complained that the tests administered on a monthly basis are too difficult for their students.

They consider these are set at the pace for ‘city children’ rather than the poor communities which their schools serve, where parents themselves have often not been to school. They also expressed concern that large numbers of children are failing on the basis of the questions being asked. As one teacher said: ‘how can our students be expected to know when the wheel was invented if it isn’t in the syllabus’?

A review of a sample of monthly tests given to children in classes 3-5 supports teachers’ concerns.

One question for class 4 students who are around 9-10 years old is:

When you sacrifice one thing to buy the other, it is called:

a. economic choice          b. economic decision      c. opportunity cost          d. economic services

Perhaps my favorite question for these students is an open-ended question to ‘Define democracy’. It would be interesting to know what scores full marks for this question in different countries at the moment!

We know from ASER Pakistan data that, by grade 4, only around one in five rural students from poor households can read a sentence. It is therefore highly unlikely that those taking the test will be able to read these questions, let alone know what the correct answer is.

A first step is to work to improve the nature of the assessments so questions being asked provide useful information on the extent to which children are learning.

How are data from school assessments being used?

In each school visited, the first sight on the outside wall is a noticeboard with the ranking of the school within the local area. So one school visited had been ranked 23 out of 25.

Within the school, a chart is posted on the head teachers’ wall grading teachers on the basis of the performance of their children in the test and observations during monitoring visits.

In one school visited, teachers were graded as C or D. Asking the teachers what support they received to help them improve, it appeared that they did not receive any. It is not therefore apparent what use such grading achieves, other than potentially to demotivate teachers who are being criticized for teaching children from poor backgrounds.

This is not to say that teachers themselves do not adopt strategies to try and improve their student’s learning. Indeed, in one of the schools visited, teachers had compiled a list of ‘slow learners’ in each class.

They told us that they gathered this information based on the experience of teaching the children, and did so to identify those who needed additional support and to seat them at the front of the class so they would receive more attention.

Using assessment data to improve learning

At a policy dialogue organized by the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) in Lahore to discuss our TEACh project, one question posed was how to make sure that all these data being collected for high-stakes purposes can be better used to improve learning for those at most risk.

One starting point is to make the data available in ways that teachers can use to help them identify those in the class who were falling behind, and in what areas they needed particular support.

Another proposal is to make sure the data are available in an appropriate form to researchers to enable them to identify where improvements in learning are happening, and what is facilitating this.

To give one example, a question frequently raised is whether strategies to improve learning of children progressing at a slower pace is at the expense of stronger learners. With the data already available it should be possible to track this.

Rather, at the moment, fears that this might be the case is resulting in education systems that are set at the pace of the strongest learners, leaving many invisible within the classroom – and at risk of dropping out before being able to even read a sentence.

None of this is an argument not to assess children’s learning. Governments will continue to do so in any case. And if collected in the right way, the data provide potentially useful information on how well the education system is working, and for whom.

Instead, the discussion needs to shift from whether to assess to what to assess; and to how to make sure the data are used for improving learning for those at risk rather to penalize schools and teachers who are often working against the odds to educate children from disadvantaged backgrounds in their schools.

South Asia: Pakistan


Pauline Rose is a professor of international education at the University of Cambridge and the chair of the GPE independent evaluation committee.  She joined Cambridge University in February 2014 as Professor of...

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