“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” Lord Kelvin
Despite the recent proliferation of standardized testing in education, there is still a significant number of countries that oppose it. I’ve heard many arguments against standardized testing from policy makers, teachers and school directors, but two of them seem persuasive at first glance. The first one is that the test’s main purpose is to hold teachers and school directors accountable, that is, to reward and punish them based on students’ performance and—per tests’ opponents—this is unfair. The second is that since standardized testing assesses few subject areas, it redistributes attention and resources to these subjects in detriment of other equally important areas of the curriculum. These are valid points, but, as I argue below, they do not justify incurring the very high cost of not testing.
A growing number of students in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in private primary or secondary schools. The World Development Report 2018 (on which I was a co-author) highlighted an array of potential benefits and risks associated with broad provision of basic education by the private sector. “The key challenge for policy makers is to develop a policy and regulatory framework that ensures access for all children, protects families from exploitation, and establishes an environment that encourages education innovation. Managing a regulatory framework to achieve this is difficult: the same technical and political barriers that education systems face more generally come into play.”
“Test and punish”?
There’s a debate raging in American schools today: how (and how much) should children be tested?
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act created a system where all children in all schools from grades 3 to 8 must be tested each year. Critics refer to this accountability architecture as “test and punish,” with stakes such as school funding (or closings!), bonuses for teachers, or grade promotion for students all riding on performance. There is evidence that NCLB improved learning outcomes, but improvements came at a high cost: In addition to teaching to the test, this approach can lead to a number of perverse incentives, like keeping weaker students at home on test day, narrowing the curriculum, or downright cheating. Worse, some have said they can serve to mask and contribute to the structural race and class inequalities in the United States.
The elusive quest to scale
Some 15 years ago, I was in a small town in Hoshangabad district (India) attending a workshop with government schoolteachers, where we were examining student test scores. Instructors from Eklavya, a non-profit supporting the government, were skillfully leading teachers through an intensely engaging session on why a child might have written a particular answer, what was right and what was wrong with the answer, how to grade it, and how a teacher could help the child improve. Everyone was sharing lessons and learning.
I Will Always Write Back is the true story of Martin Ganda and Caitlin Alifirenka, who became pen pals -- between Zimbabwe and the USA -- in middle (or lower secondary) school. Over time, they learn from each other, and ultimately Caitlin's family realizes the depth of need of Martin and his family -- living in a slum on the outskirts of the city Matate -- and provides support beyond the letters, all to an inspiring end (which I won't spoil).
This book is on many middle school reading lists, with good reason. My thirteen-year-old son just read and enjoyed it. It provides an introduction to life in Zimbabwe and a range of challenges that might never occur to a child (or adult, for that matter) in a high-income country. I've never worked in Zimbabwe, but I have studied education in many countries, including several countries around Sub-Saharan Africa, and the characterizations of life broadly rang true.
In a recent exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, “Dinosaurs Among Us,” paleontologists use prehistoric fossil records of bones, feathers, and nests to show that some dinosaurs did not go extinct but, rather, evolved into the creatures we see today. The links they trace show how avian dinosaurs (ones that fly) evolved into modern-day birds. Paleontologists argue that avian-dinosaurs’ swift aerial mobility played a key role in determining their survival while their land-based relatives failed to thrive. Flight enabled them to relocate and adapt to drastically changing environments—a skill that their land-based relatives lacked.
Figure 1. Paleontologists argue that avian-dinosaurs (left) adapted to the changing environment quickly and evolved into birds (right).
The 2018 World Development Report (WDR), Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, launched this week. While it draws on research and collective experience—both from within and outside the World Bank—it also draws on the personal experience of the team members, including the two of us. What inspires the focus on learning for all is that we both have seen the possibilities of widely shared learning, but we’ve also seen what happens when those possibilities aren’t fulfilled.
Who doesn’t enjoy an afternoon at the movies? Yet sometimes a cinema screening can be more than just fun. An experiment in Uganda demonstrates how an inspiring, relatable figure in a movie can actually help students to pass their math exams.
We all benefit from role models, whether it’s in school, work, or our personal life. A role model shows us how we can be more or achieve more. In Madagascar, a role model (in this case, an “educated person with high income, who grew up in the local school district”) sharing her life story at a school significantly increased students’ test performance. (Notably, the effect only materialized when the role model had come from a poor background, not when she came from a well-off background.) In Uganda, women who work in male-dominated sectors – and subsequently make much more money – point to the importance of role models in showing them they can succeed.
Countries around the world have experimented with “school report cards”: providing parents with information about the quality of their school so that they can demand higher quality service for their children. The results have been mixed. Andrabi, Das, and Khwaja bring a significant contribution to that literature in last month’s American Economic Review with their article using data from Pakistan, “Report Cards: The Impact of Providing School and Child Test Scores on Educational Markets.”