In his short story “Instructions to climb a ladder,” Julio Cortazar uses more than 380 words to explain an action that, you would think, requires no explanation at all. He writes, for example: “The first steps are always the most difficult, just to acquire the coordination needed.” He also notes the coincidence of the raising of “the foot” and “the foot” of the ladder.
Cortazar is inviting us to think deeply about an action that most adults perform unconsciously, stressing the importance of that first step as the foundation for later success. First steps are particularly important when it comes to progress on reading and writing in the earliest years of schooling, and those first steps should be monitored with care. But the purpose of that monitoring is most definitely not, in my view, to inflict constant testing on children to see if they “measure up” to some rigid standard imposed by someone thousands of miles away, who knows nothing about their culture, their context or their lives. It is to help all children take that crucial first step: to fulfill their right to gain the foundational skill of learning to read, as a pathway to reading to learn.
Basic literacy is a human right—and with good reason. Children’s ability to read and write is a powerful tool for their communication, expression and access to a whole world of ideas and information. Its importance for society has been recognized in Sustainable Development Goal 4.6, which aims to ensure that by 2030 all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy. That can’t happen if children don’t have that all-important first foothold.
Children need to be engaged in activities that build their literacy skills from a very early age, as children who are good readers from the earliest possible moment gain new skills at speed, and they move rapidly from learning to read to reading to learn. Children who lag behind in reading at the end of Grade 1 tend to stay behind. Over time, the gap only gets wider, and the costs to these children in terms of lost opportunities only increase. The end result: poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the very act of reading and start to disengage. If they are unable to read, it is likely that they will fall further behind—not only in reading but in every other area of learning—making it more likely that they will give up on schooling altogether. And the costs to the school system and to society in wasted resources, the need for remedial and adult literacy courses, and the loss of a person’s potential contributions to the community are vast.
So the assessment of reading and writing in the early grades is essential—but not to enforce any single view or to put unnecessary pressure on young children or their teachers. It is just to ensure that nobody is left behind.
Exactly how reading and writing should be assessed is a decision for countries and their communities. Other than suggesting that parents and teachers can and should be closely involved, it is not for the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) to establish rigid rules for the assessment of reading and writing in the early grades. While we have promoted best practices in the use of oral assessments as a way to track learning, this is just one of a number of options. Countries need to be firmly in the driver’s seat here.
It is only on the basis of sound evidence that governments can channel resources to those areas and children in greatest need of falling behind, and avoid the far heavier financial costs of, for example, poor achievement, dropping out, remedial education and youth or adult literacy programs. And it is only by investing at an early stage that governments can avoid the heavy personal costs of illiteracy for children who watch their peers moving up the ladder, while they are left behind.
There is debate around the value of the quest for internationally comparable measures of early learning. But there is agreement across the board that the world must know whether it is on track—and on time—to achieve learning for all. Otherwise, it will fail to keep its promise to children, as it did in its failure to achieve universal primary education by 2015.
It is not just the reputations of political leaders and statisticians that are on the line; it is the educational prospects for millions of children. Debate is fine, but the clock is ticking. We have just 14 years to get this done and we need to move fast.
Measurement is always about compromise, as there is no such thing as perfect metrics, especially in the area of learning, which is shaped by a multitude of factors specific to countries and their communities. So we must agree and focus on a set of key areas, such as the proportion of young people at the end of lower-secondary school who have achieved at least minimum proficiency in reading, knowing that we cannot practically measure every aspect of the larger reality.
Countries have also made it very clear that they want to continue to use their own assessments, methodologies and standards to measure learning. What they need is help to improve the quality of their own assessment systems. So through the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML), the UIS and the Australian Council for Education (ACER) are developing a set of learning scales that will help countries use their own data and systems for global metrics. This is backed by support to ensure good quality: the skills to carry out measurement and the technical tools to do so.
At the second meeting of GAML in mid-October, technical experts from countries and organizations around the world honed in on measurement indicators for the achievement of SDG target 4.1: by 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes. They focused on the “nuts and bolts” of new and ground-breaking tools to help countries use their own learning assessment data to report progress globally—tools that they can use right away.
Let’s be clear: we live in a multi-assessment world, which reflects diverse cultures and societies. The approach adopted by the UIS is a natural extension of this diversity. It allows all of the various tools and approaches to co-exist, while providing some help and guidance for their products. The real work happens at country level and is driven by national priorities. By pinning their very different visions and measures of learning on to one single backbone, we can produce core data that are robust and—very importantly—internationally comparable. The aim is to identify any roadblocks on the way to the 2030 deadline for SDG 4 rather than to impose any kind of single vision or prescription for early learning.
More importantly, however, the goal is to make the best possible use of data, so that every child has a fair chance to climb that ladder, sure of their footing and with a firm grip.