Citizen-led assessments (CLAs) emerged in India in 2005 as a way to raise awareness and advocacy around low learning levels, and to act as a force for bottom-up accountability and action that would improve education quality and learning. Thousands of volunteers traveled to rural districts and administered simple reading and math tests to the children in households they visited. The dismal results, published in the 2005 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), helped stimulate debate and prioritize learning in national policy.
From this beginning, CLAs quickly expanded across the globe. A decade on, it seems reasonable to ask if our expectations for these surveys have been met. Are CLAs in India, Kenya, Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda really helping to shift the education agenda in these countries in the direction of quality? Have they improved overall quality or learning levels?
Answers can be found in Results for Development’s (R4D) recent report on CLAs, which shines a spotlight on the impact of these surveys.
The report’s conclusion is that CLAs have indeed played a role in shifting global and system-level conversations on education to include a greater focus on quality. However, there is little evidence of sustained changes at other levels. Of particular concern is the report’s finding of no apparent impact on quality or learning levels.
The World Bank is interested in these findings, not only because it provided financing for one of these CLAs, but because the conclusions offer important lessons for the education community as we head into a new era of global development goals that include a stronger focus on quality and learning.
The inclusion of a learning goal in the post-2015 global agenda places increased scrutiny on existing large-scale assessments of learning and achievement (both more formal, government-led efforts as well as grassroots CLAs) in terms of their ability to produce information to effectively monitor and promote such a learning goal.
What lessons can we take from the R4D report?
CLAs seem to do a better job at raising public awareness about low learning levels
A recent review of assessment systems in more than 30 countries under the World Bank’s Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative shows that much work remains to be done to strengthen the capacity of countries’ formal, large-scale assessment programs so that they can effectively contribute to a learning agenda.
The R4D report points out some of the same issues with CLAs, but also highlights comparative advantages. In fact, many government-led assessment programs could learn useful lessons from CLAs, particularly in terms of how to work effectively with the media to disseminate assessment results to the public in an accessible way.
It’s connecting assessment information to action that promotes learning
All too often the action portion does not occur. The reasons outlined in the R4D report are instructive for all assessment initiatives. In order for awareness of low learning levels to stimulate action, there needs to be an entity or champion in the system that can provide suggestions for what those actions might look like. In India, Pratham (an NGO that works in schools and communities) collaborates with government officials to design and implement interventions in response to ASER results.
However, in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, the lack of an equivalent entity has limited the ability to generate action based on Uwezo (a CLA initiative implemented in all three countries) results. More formal, large-scale assessment programs are likely to be linked to a country’s official decision-making structure and to have an entity, such as the Ministry of Education, to provide suggestions for action, but the connection is not always strong.
The learner should be at the center of any assessment program
The R4D report begins with the key question: are children learning? What is striking, however, is that of all the constituencies mentioned as recipients of feedback and reporting on CLAs -- parents, schools, government and education officials, national policymakers -- the child is not one of them.
The report notes that these tests are not meant to be diagnostic, but the symbolism of this grassroots initiative leaving a key stakeholder – the child – out of the feedback loop seems unfortunate, particularly since many of these children rarely receive useful feedback on their learning, either from classroom teachers or through formal examination results.
Many formal, large-scale assessments also do not provide individualized feedback to the child (or their parent). We need to think about where and when these children can receive such information, particularly since assessment data are most powerful when used to support the learning of an individual child. In our efforts to improve learning levels globally, it’s important that we not lose sight of the individual learner.
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