By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, @montoya_sil @UNESCOstat
No single organization can produce all of the data needed to monitor Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 – which covers a wide range of issues from learning outcomes to global citizenship. Therefore, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), which is the official source of internationally-comparable education data, has been given the mandate to coordinate the different initiatives needed to produce the indicators to monitor the new global education goal and targets.
Precisely how to measure learning is a challenge, just as it is an opportunity. Five of the seven education targets of SDG 4 focus on learning skills and outcomes of children and adults. Many countries conduct learning assessments, which can be powerful tools to improve outcomes and opportunities. But to leverage this potential, new coordination mechanisms are needed to help the international community define and implement a common measurement framework, strengthen capacity to measure learning outcomes and advocate for the necessary resources.
Global measures of learning such as these, which can be used to track the outcomes of different groups of children and youth over time, will require the active support and consultation of a wide range of stakeholders – from countries and donors to international and citizen-led assessment initiatives.
To make this vision a reality, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is building a Global Alliance for Learning (GAL) to bring together assessment agencies, national education authorities, civil society groups and the international education community. It is uniquely designed to ensure that quality data are used to track progress and formulate policies to improve the learning outcomes of all.
The GAL will enable us to move beyond the commitment of SDG 4 to define and agree on the fine print of the specific measures and instruments needed to consistently monitor the goal over the next fifteen years. As the Learning Metrics Taskforce sunsets in 2015, the new alliance will sustain the momentum that brought learning to the top of the agenda by bringing together a wide range of initiatives – from the World Bank’s work through SABER to create a knowledge base on how countries organize and design their assessment systems to emerging proposals such as A4L that will explore new types of platforms for assessment. Through this inclusive approach, GAL can effectively deliver on the new global education goal.
Let’s be clear – this is both a technical and political process. You cannot divide one from the other and expect to produce globally comparable data that will be trusted and used by countries. With this new Alliance, the international education community will have an inclusive and technically-robust mechanism to coordinate the different efforts to produce a new generation of learning data.
Lead the production of global metrics to monitor SDG 4
Based on this list of learning indicators, the first priority is to develop a single measure of reading and mathematics that is carried out in all countries, and is comparable across countries at the end of primary and lower secondary education. This currently does not exist. Each assessment has its own framework, test construct, implementation plan and methodology to analyse and report the data. Consequently, the results cannot be compared.
It would take a large amount of resources, time and political clout to develop a new assessment that meets the needs of all countries. So the most pragmatic approach is to link existing national, regional and cross-national assessments on the basis of a common concept of minimum proficiencies in learning.
This will require carefully structured dialogue and consultation, especially with the assessment bodies at the international (eg, PISA, TIMMS), and regional level (eg. LLECE or SACMEQ). But the huge advantage is that this approach would enable the education community to produce an initial set of internationally comparable data on learning in a relatively short period of time. Countries could then use this to monitor and benchmark their progress while learning from the experience of others to improve their policy-making. We would all have some idea of how the world is progressing towards a quality education as called for in SDG 4.
Help policymakers decide which assessment to use and how to use them
International assessments often make headlines but this does not mean that the results are accurately understood by the public. We need to ensure that school administrators, teachers, students and their families are not just informed of the results but can use the information as part of their own strategies to sharpen learning skills and outcomes. The new global alliance will highlight ways in which countries and communities can make the most of their assessment data.
It will also help governments make informed decisions about the different types of tests available and the ways in which the results can be used. Assessments are powerful but costly tools. By providing neutral and accurate information, GAL will help governments and civil society groups ensure that their tests provide the reliable and specific information needed to meet the needs of their diverse populations and local school systems.
Build national capacity to use assessment data and connect countries to donors
Many countries don’t have the expertise or resources to conduct learning assessments specifically designed to meet their needs on a regular basis. In response, the new alliance will provide the technical assistance needed by countries to upgrade their current systems or implement new tests. By serving as an umbrella organization, it will avoid duplication of efforts and build upon existing tools.
GAL will also connect developing countries to public and private donors in a cost-effective manner. It will help facilitate access to sustainable sources of funding and ensure that resources are well-spent by providing countries and donors with neutral information about the different testing options.
With SDG 4, governments have unanimously agreed to make learning a global priority. Now the challenge lies in defining an agreed-upon way to measure results. For this to happen, we must avoid “re-inventing the wheel” by duplicating efforts and getting bogged down in technical and political battles. With the Global Alliance for Learning, we can bring all the stakeholders to the table with the expertise and neutrality required to get the job done.