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Internationally comparable learning tests pave the way for education reform in Africa

Makhtar Diop's picture
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Most parents in Africa will tell you that their children’s education is the most important investment they can make. Over the past decade, great progress has been made in terms of getting children into school, with countries such as Benin, Cameroon, Rwanda and Zambia recording primary net enrollment of over 90 percent. But across the continent, primary school completion and youth literacy rates remain unacceptably low.

Africa is hardly alone in grappling with the question of how to fulfil the promise of education as a clear pathway out of poverty. Across the world, an urgent question for policymakers is how to raise the quality of education—now a key objective among the new Sustainable Development Goals that were adopted in 2015 at the United Nations.
 
As countries try to deliver better education, a critical first step is to be able to measure education quality credibly. There has been strong progress on this front as well. Newly available results from tests of learning among second and sixth graders have provided the first internationally comparable insights into primary school learning across Francophone Africa, for example.
 
These results, provided by PASEC (Education System Performance in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa), shed light on the scale of the problem—71 percent of second graders do not have sufficient French language skills and about 59 percent of fifth graders lack essential mathematics competency. The public release of these data comes at an important time for Africa.
 
Today, countries are grappling with burgeoning numbers of children entering school and youth reaching working age. Gaining key insights into the education quality problem and being able to track progress over time towards “learning for all” will help prevent millions of young people from being trapped in a web of underemployment and poverty.
 
The PASEC results tell us that learning conditions in classrooms serving the poorest children are those that need the most urgent attention. Disparities in the level of learning between the wealthiest and poorest children are common within each country. For instance, in Benin, Cameroon and Togo, there is a significant and highly consistent difference in language achievement between fifth graders with literate parents and those with illiterate parents.
 
The ten countries which participated in the 2014 round of PASEC deserve credit for trying to identify and fix the quality problems in their education systems. These are Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Senegal, Chad, and Togo.  These countries now have an internationally comparable measure which can help inform policy dialogue, spur education system reform, and encourage international cooperation on learning.
 
Many countries are now prioritizing quality improvements in their education systems. Data such as that generated by PASEC can be critical to identify gaps, measure progress, and help inform and advance the next phase of reforms. Countries such as Jordan and Tunisia, for example, have used international measures to successfully benchmark and guide recent reforms in curriculum and teacher training. The Gambia’s use of learning assessments has fed into ongoing efforts to improve math and science teaching and teacher quality and deployment.
 
Just as the first internationally comparable measures of primary school enrollment produced after the Education for All declaration delivered a clearer picture of the out-of-school challenge, PASEC results are now making the quality of education systems in Francophone countries in Sub-Saharan Africa visible to all. The impact of policy reforms and investments will be easier to track going forward as new rounds of PASEC data become available.
 
The World Bank is providing technical support to PASEC countries as part of an Africa-wide push to improve education quality in Africa. This regional effort to enhance education quality includes generating service-delivery data on what teachers know and do in classrooms, and linking financing to achievement of targets that influence learning, as is being done in Tanzania’s Big Results Now in Education program. It also includes specific targets to boost math and science performance, and research that provides new evidence of what works.
 
The bottom line is that schooling without quality is not really education in the true sense of the word. Our children deserve nothing less than high-quality schooling if we are to help secure their future and that of their communities, and if Africa is to build the talent and the homegrown scientific and technical expertise that is needed for economies to compete in the 21st century.

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