South Asia’s progress in tracking basic numeracy with a new assessment

By Steffi Elizabeth Thomas, Senior Research Associate, Pratham Education Foundation-ASER Centre, India and Waqas Imran, Data Analyst, Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), Pakistan

There has been a global shift in focus towards the quality of education under the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) with the realisation that increased schooling has not translated to improvements in learning. With only a decade left for meeting the SDGs, tracking learning outcomes to gauge the progress made towards the SDG targets and their indicators, and to identify who is likely to be left behind has become imperative. This blog looks at the way that a new international assessment of numeracy launched by the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network can help.

Image credit: Sudipto Kar /ASER Centre-Pratham Education Foundation

In India, Pratham, through its Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER), has been reporting on foundational literacy and numeracy skills since 2005. Today, 12 other member organisation of the PAL Network based in South Asia, East Africa and Latin America carry out similar assessments. They are known as Citizen led Assessments (CLAs). These assessments are simple and easy to administer and are conducted at the household level. This has enabled understanding of learning deficits in early years of schools as well as identifying who is likely to learn less owing to individual and contextual factors.

However, findings from CLA data were not comparable across countries as each country’s CLA aligns with their corresponding national curriculum. The launch of the new International Common Assessment of Numeracy (ICAN) last July developed by the PAL Network has overcome this limitation ICAN is open-source, easy-to-administer and available in 11 languages. In its first round, ICAN was conducted in one district of each of the 13 member countries of the Network, using the household based design used by all CLAs. The tasks in ICAN are aligned to UNESCO’s Global Proficiency Framework, offering international comparability relevant to the Minimum Proficiency Level (MPL) descriptor for numeracy under SDG 4.1.1(a). ICAN thus enables tracking foundational numeracy skills of children globally and helping us understand the ways in which children are left behind.

ICAN findings support evidence on the learning crisis in South Asia

The learning crisis in South Asia is well acknowledged.  According to the World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report, about 120 million youth (age 15-24 years) in South Asia lack foundational learning skills. In fact, learning deficits begin in the early years of schooling. ICAN data, although limited to one district each from Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, gives a glimpse to this learning deficit. For example, ICAN data from  India’s Betul district, shows that less than 30% of children in grades 2 and 3 can solve a set of foundational tasks that proxy the MPL . Evidence from past studies like those by Pritchett and Beatty in 2015 suggest that those who do not acquire foundational skills in early grades are less likely to acquire them later. This trend plays out in Betul and in the other districts, where a substantial number of children even in grades 4 and above are not at MPL (see Figure 1).

Disparities in contextual factors like mother’s schooling impact learning

Until fairly recently, education of girls was not prioritised in most South Asian countries. Cultural norms in countries like Pakistan have a significant role to play with regards to the access to and continuation of schooling among girls. Even today although enrolment rates of girls have increased manifold, many girls drop out without completing school. It is therefore likely that mothers of many children who currently attend school have themselves either dropped out or never attended school. This is evident in the current ICAN data. For example, in Toba Tek Singh district of Pakistan, a little over 50% of mothers of sampled children had never attended school. In Makwanpur district of Nepal, less than 30% mothers of sampled children had completed more than five years of schooling.

Image credit: Sudipto Kar / ASER Centre-Pratham Education Foundation

While this first ICAN edition cannot explore implications of mother’s schooling on learning owing to sample size constraints, past studies depict a strong relation between mother’s education and children’s learning. For example, a DFID think-piece by Rose and Alcott using the ASER India data, finds that a grade 5 child whose mother has attended school is 8% more likely to solve a simple subtraction problem compared to a child whose mothers have never attended school.

Concluding thoughts

The release of ICAN is significant particularly in the context of South Asia.  First, while most regions in the world have some standardised regional assessments, South Asia has none that could provide comparable data on learning of children in the region. ICAN is thus of potentially greater importance for the region.

Second, there are no international assessments that track foundational learning outcomes, barring a few regional assessments such as PASEC and LLECE. ICAN, a simple and easy-to–administer tool, could fill this gap, which also enables tracking progress made towards SDG 4.

Finally, ICAN is a versatile assessment that can be used at the household as well as the school/classroom level, giving it tremendous advantages for robustness and accountability. Like the CLAs, when administered as part of a household survey, it can provide data on individual and contextual factors that have implications for children’s learning, thus enabling identification of children who are more likely than others to lag behind in learning. The school/classroom-based use makes the tool more comparable to approaches deployed by formal public and private assessment bodies for reporting learning outcomes, trends in progress and challenges. Thus ICAN is a tremendous innovation that provides insights to equity, juxtaposing learning with household and school effects. This in turn can guide different stakeholders in education to take appropriate remedial measures to combat the learning crisis.

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