Very little is known about the learning levels of two-thirds of African children

By Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report

The spotlight needs to be turned on children’s learning in Africa. Despite improvements in learning assessments, the recent Spotlight report by ADEA, the African Union and the Global Education Monitoring Report shows that there are insufficient data on learning levels and, especially, trends for countries to set realistic and ambitious targets they can work towards.

Recent data on learning is available for one-third of children on the continent. Since 2015, only 19 countries in reading and 18 countries in mathematics have reported data from school surveys. These data show that, at most, about one in five achieve minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics at the end of primary school.

There is even less information on trends. Only 14 countries representing 15% of the school-age population in Africa have at least two data points on minimum learning proficiency. According to these data, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics has estimated that progress over time is half as fast as in the rest of the world.

Most of those countries with trend data are francophone African countries that participated in the 2014 and 2019 rounds of the PASEC survey and are preparing to take part in the 2024 round, making it the most valuable source of information on learning in the continent. This is not to deny that questions have been asked about the consistency of its reported trends. Investment in capacity development needs to increase to strengthen technical expertise.

National resources to finance learning assessments remain limited. To some extent, this is understandable: education budgets are very low and demands on them are enormous. However, governments could have done better. An analysis in the Spotlight Report has highlighted challenges with SACMEQ, the other major cross-national assessment covering southern and eastern, mostly anglophone African countries. Data for the fourth round of SACMEQ in 2013 are still not available. National authorities have contributed to some of SACMEQ’s challenges, as they have not paid their fees and, more critically, they have not managed their participation in SACMEQ effectively, leading to wastage and loss of expertise.

There has been a lot of international financing of learning assessments. For instance, among the 12 countries covered in the Spotlight Report, well over 100 nationally representative assessments have been carried out after 1995 at the end of primary education, mostly with external support. But there are several issues with such spending. For instance, only 17% of these surveys have been used to report to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics on the global SDG indicator 4.1.1, the percentage of students who achieve minimum proficiency.

Some of these assessments do not meet minimum quality criteria and/or cannot be compared with the global proficiency framework to understand learning levels. A case study for the Spotlight Report on Sierra Leone showed that 10 large-scale assessments had been or were scheduled to be carried out between 2014 and 2023 in primary and secondary education funded by four major development partners. Although not all have made information on costs publicly available, a conservative estimate is that at least US$10 million has been spent on them. But to this date, Sierra Leone has not reported on the global SDG 4 indicator at any of the three designated education levels, while the first steps to establish a national assessment unit were only taken this year.

The Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) program in theory makes data available through the USAID Development Data Library. However, of the 39 USAID-funded EGRA surveys carried out in Africa since 2014, only half are available in the Library; even these are not necessarily easy to access, as the Spotlight Report discovered during its research.

Similarly, the United Kingdom’s Research for Development Outputs database currently includes only eight UK-funded data sets with education variables, none of which is an EGRA data set. Yet the EGRA Tracker database, which is not exhaustive, has documented at least 170 EGRA surveys in sub-Saharan Africa since 2007 of which the UK government has totally or partially funded at least 29. Overall, without distinguishing by grade or domain, among 114 large-scale learning assessments between 1995 and 2021 at the primary level in the 12 Spotlight countries, 75 produced publicly available and accessible reports but only 25 have easily accessible microdata.

Learning assessment data should be the basis for developing a shared national vision and a plan with national targets. A national assessment program, from classroom to system level, should support the monitoring of these targets and its results should be reported to all stakeholders to ensure understanding and buy-in. Without a national assessment system, education stakeholders are likely to continue paying greater attention to high-stakes examinations, which tend not to communicate the same focus on quality improvement.

As of 2020, 20 sub-Saharan African countries had developed a national assessment policy framework, while 6 more were in the process of establishing one. However, even such frameworks are often not implemented or not communicated to all levels. One study by the International Institute for Educational Planning, showed that national assessment strategies Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Namibia, Senegal and Zambia were either absent or not fully implemented, results were not disseminated and data were not shared. Ghana’s government has initiated GALOP, an ambitious program to develop, among others, a sustainable learning assessment system. Yet discussions with national stakeholders indicated varying degrees of awareness, including at central level.

A component of a national assessment system should be active participation in one of the regional assessment programs, PASEC and SACMEQ, for lesson learning. Closer collaboration and pooling of resources between these two programs would strengthen their ability to meet the continental challenges.

The stagnating, if not declining levels of data reporting on learning outcomes to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics despite the efforts of development agencies raise the question of effectiveness. It will be important for these agencies, including GPE, to ensure that resource allocation in this area results in the collection of data on learning outcomes that are internationally comparable but also in the development of relevant capacity in partner countries to use the relevant data for improved policy.

Despite the lack of data, however, about half of sub-Saharan African countries have recently responded to the call to set national SDG 4 benchmarks on minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics for 2025 and 2030, one of seven benchmark indicators. Inevitably, these targets can only be refined, made more realistic and, most importantly, achieved, when all stakeholders do what is in their power to not only collect data but also for such to be validated, published and used.