Informing Education Policy
“You should look at this section if you have only a limited idea of how assessment data can inform education policy.”
Assessment is carried out in schools and classrooms on a regular basis. Its objective is to help teachers understand how students are performing and to alter their teaching accordingly. This type of assessment is not much help to policy makers.
Large scale assessment, however, is often specifically designed to provide insights into an education system to support educational policy making. Examples of large scale assessment include international programmes such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS as well as national and regional programmes. The advantage of these programmes is that they generate comparable data that can highlight patterns in performance.
Large scale assessment often involves assessing a sample of students rather than all students. Instead of providing individual grades to students, large scale assessment tends to focus on the overall performance of students in a country, state or region. It gives education policy makers a good insight into the strengths and weaknesses that are found within the education system, and helps them to identify elements that need more focus.
Countries that have a long history of undertaking their own large scale assessment, or participating in international assessment programmes, have used this information to reform their education systems. With a focus on educational outcomes under the Sustainable Development Goals, more and more countries are realising how important empirically driven decision making is in supporting better learning outcomes for students.
Assessment data is particularly important in supporting quality improvements in educational provision, more equitable outcomes between different groups of students and greater transparency and accountability among education stakeholders (including policy makers, administrators and officials).
Equity – data from large scale assessment can identify which groups in the student population need the most support to improve their learning. For example, data may show that students in region X perform worse than students in region Y in mathematics, or that girls perform better than boys in science.
A common mistake is to criticise poor performers. Instead, it is important to realise that educational achievement is affected by very many factors such as culture, family, social influence and nutrition. Therefore, if assessment data indicates that a particular group of students are under-achieving, this is best understood as an indication that greater resources and support are required to be targeted to those students.
Quality improvements – Good learning outcomes are achieved when all of the elements of the education system work well together. This means providing sufficient resources, adequate infrastructure, well trained teachers, high quality curricula and teaching resources and sufficient administrative support. Poor results in large scale assessment can stimulate all of the parts of the education system to improve and this can lead to overall improvements in learning outcomes among students.
Accountability and transparency – A common characteristic of large scale assessment is that results are made publicly available. This can help policy makers identify differences in student performance between educational entities (for example countries, states, districts and schools). It is not appropriate to simply rank these results in order to compare between regions, because many factors – particularly socio-economic status – exert a strong influence on educational performance. What is useful, however, is to consider how regions with similar characteristics have performed in comparison to each other. This can help to hold education authorities accountable and to increase the expectations of performance (even in the most disadvantaged areas).
To find out more about how assessment data can inform education policy, go to #Intermediate.
“You should look at this section if you already something about how assessment data can inform education policy and would like to know more.”
Data from large scale assessment programmes is one of the most useful pieces of information available to help education policy makers decide how to improve educational quality. When assessment is done properly, it can show a clear picture of strengths and weaknesses in the education system. Policy makers can then develop strategies to help build on strengths and solve weaknesses. Without this kind of empirical evidence, policy making is based only on assumptions and is more likely to fail to lead to any improvements.
Countries that have many years of experience in large scale assessment (particularly at the national and international level) tend to use it to support quality improvements, more accountability and greater levels of equity. A report written about educational policy making in Asia-Pacific countries provides lots of examples of how countries have used assessment data (see https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000235469)
Quality – Japan is an example of a country that used data from an international assessment programme to monitor the quality of its education system over a number of years. Japanese policy makers examined the assessment data and identified priorities where education practices needed to be changed. They then made changes and used assessment data to identify the extent to which these changes had impacted on quality. Japan also used data from its national assessment programme to get more insights into each of the priority areas and to make sure that performance was measured on a regular basis.
Equality – It is very common for particular groups of students to perform less well than others, usually due to a combination of complex causes. Countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand use data from large scale national and international assessment programmes to focus on the difference in performance between indigenous students and non-indigenous students. They are able to see patterns of inequality over time and – as a result – to develop interventions to support indigenous students. Canada is a particular success story, with big reductions in the difference in performance between indigenous and non-indigenous students as a result of their education policies.
Accountability and transparency – In most countries, results from large scale assessment are made publicly available. This helps stakeholders to ask questions about why students in certain schools, districts, states or countries are not performing as well as others. This helps to increase accountability among education officials and for them to put their best efforts into improving the quality of education for all students. South Korea is an example of a country where greater accountability has led to overall improvements in education quality.
In all of these examples, an important fact is that large scale assessment is repeated on a regular basis. This allows trends to be seen which is very important for education policy makers. Measuring progress over time, however, can only be done if assessment id designed and implemented according to global best practice.
To find out more about how assessment data can support revisions to education policy, go to #Advanced.
“You should look at this section if you are already familiar with the use of assessment data in revising education policy and would like to extend your understanding.”
It is increasingly understood that education quality has the best chance of improving if education policy makers use empirical evidence to support their strategies. One of the best sources of empirical evidence in the education sector is data collected from large scale assessment.
Education systems with a long history of participating in robust assessment programmes can show evidence of how they have used assessment data to support improvements in educational quality, equity and accountability. Not all of these examples are publicly available but a report written about educational policy making in Asia-Pacific countries provides lots of examples of how countries have used assessment data (see https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000235469).
For example, Vietnam has undertaken large scale assessment at the national level since 2001, and has used the data collected to monitor the impact of changes in educational policy that have aimed to improve learning outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged students. Some of the policies that have been monitored include revisions to curricula and teacher standards.
Russia has participated in large scale international assessments since they were first introduced in 1995. Russia identified areas in which educational performance relative to other countries was declining over time and used this information to set a reform agenda. Because international assessment programmes such as PISA collect a great deal of information about the context in which students learn, Russia was able to focus on improvements to the environment in which students were studying. Russia also used assessment data to support reforms to curricula, and continues to undertake ongoing reforms that aim to improve the quality of educational outcomes.
Germany and Japan have also participated in large scale international assessments since 1995. In both countries there was a shock when some results were publicly released and showed that their performance relative to other countries was not as good as expected. Education policy makers in both Germany and Japan responded by starting a long process of reform to different elements of their education systems, including new legislation. While in both countries these reforms have led to better student learning outcomes, policy makers in Japan and Germany continue to scrutinise assessment results and to continue to reform educational policy as a result.
These are just a few examples of how countries have used educational assessment data to drive educational policy changes that aim to create improvements in learning outcomes among students. In all examples, improvements have taken a long period of time and policy makers have focused on systematic, sustained improvement that has been regularly monitored. Policy changes include how resources are allocated, revised curricula, new standards for teaching and learning and a focus on greater support for the most disadvantaged students
Critically, these reforms have only been possible because the assessment data has been created from high quality assessment programmes, meaning that the conclusions that can be drawn from it are accurate. This highlights the importance of ensuring that assessment programmes reflect global best practice to the greatest extent possible.
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