Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
The Importance of Curriculum and Assessments – Questions from the RISE Online Presentation Series
Education systems need regular and reliable learning data, not only to measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, but to understand when and why children stop learning. Students fall behind when the curriculum moves faster than their progress in learning, and if children don’t master foundational skills early, it is difficult for them to catch up. The mismatch between curricular pace and students’ skill levels is a crucial factor contributing to the learning crisis.
On 23 July, RISE hosted a webinar to discuss the importance of curriculum and assessments to achieve learning outcomes for all. Chaired by Suman Bhattacharjea from the ASER Centre, the panel brought their expertise to the discussion and provided insight from their individual research on the topic.
Research insights from the RISE webinar panellists
Adedeji Adeniran discussed a new education quality indicator in Nigeria that matches early grade literacy and numeracy levels with the curriculum. Doug Johnson presented results from a comparative study in India that assesses three nationally representative surveys on learning outcomes. Diva Dhar shared results from an evaluation in India of a blended remedial intervention in Grade 9. Isaac Mbiti summarised an evaluation of a recent curriculum reform in Tanzania that brought about significant improvements in early grade literacy and numeracy. Finally, incorporating the political perspective of policy reform, Wayne Sandholtz discussed a recent randomised school reform in Liberia and whether voters reward service delivery.
Although we covered a lot of ground during the webinar, we weren’t able to get through all of the audience questions. Now, you can click on one of the questions below to learn more about our panellists’ research through some of our unanswered questions.
- In many countries, the focus is shifting to large-scale assessments, and school-based assessments are being weakened with a dilution of a teacher’s role in monitoring their children's learning. What are the views of the panel on this? Go to Question 1 ↓
- How would you explain ‘teaching at the right level’? Go to Question 2 ↓
- Is simplifying the curriculum equivalent to dumbing down? Go to Question 3 ↓
- Curricular pace and politics come together around the idea that middle class parents will resist “dumbing down” the curricula. Is this a real political concern, or does Isaac’s work argue against this, and how does Wayne’s work relate? Go to Question 4 ↓
- Question about the falsification tests in Tanzania: If I understood correctly, you looked at 7th graders’ exams, with 3rd and 4th standards as your control group. But what outcome were you using? You didn't have Grade 7 exam data for 3rd and 4th graders, nor simple assessment data for 3rd/4th graders, right? Go to Question 5 ↓
- Recently a survey in India showed that 50 percent of the children are in private schools. Under such a scenario, how do you see the improvement in student learning outcomes being linked to the political sentiment? Go to Question 6 ↓
In many countries, the focus is shifting to large-scale assessments, and school-based assessments are being weakened with a dilution of a teacher’s role in monitoring their children's learning. What are the views of the panel on this?
- Isaac Mbiti: Teacher led classroom assessments and large-scale government assessments serve different functions. They complement each other in important ways. Improving the quality of all these assessments would be beneficial, especially if we also support teachers in using the information from these assessments to support children’s learning.
- Wayne Sandholtz: It can be tricky to get the balance just right on this. My sense is that many parents do respond to large-scale assessments -- for example, nationwide lists of school rankings -- but that perhaps these nationwide assessments could be more useful than they currently are (e.g. by ranking on value added). At the same time, I applaud the governments which are investing in giving teachers the skills they need to monitor children's learning. I would hope for a national assessment which picks up the learning gains that would come from teachers' individualized attention to students' needs, and I think there are forms of value-added measures that can begin to accomplish something like this. But it's certainly not easy to design them. Top ↑
Isaac Mbiti: There are many models of this approach but essentially it is ensuring that the material being taught is adequately tailored to the students’ skills. This approach ensures that the material covered is not moving too fast, or at a level that each student cannot follow (“too hard”), or too slow and repetitive (“too easy”). Top ↑
Isaac Mbiti: This is an important concern that you raise. We can only speak about the Tanzanian case and we would argue that this particular reform was not a case of dumbing down but rather one of prioritizing the fundamentals. By not having to worry about teaching “vocational skills” or “computer class” (in contexts where many schools do not have much access to technology anyways), teachers were able to focus on the most important skills for early grade learners—numeracy and literacy. Our results are not consistent with the dumbing down hypothesis because we do not see a negative impact on the better prepared (at baseline) students. In fact, these students also benefit! Getting the right balance is very difficult so lots of time, thought, research, piloting, needs to be done to figure how to do this appropriately. Top ↑
Curricular pace and politics come together around the idea that middle class parents will resist “dumbing down” the curricula. Is this a real political concern, or does Isaac’s work argue against this, and how does Wayne’s work relate?
- Isaac Mbiti: Our results show that students of all preparation levels benefited from the reform. Politically there was great support behind the education reforms that were being implemented at the time. This reform was part of the Big Results Now initiative launched by a popular president in response to widespread concerns about the quality of education in Tanzania. It is unclear how the debate may have been different without presidential support.
- Wayne Sandholtz: Great question. My work seems to show that even non-elite voters can observe and reward actual learning (or something correlated with it), and Isaac's work supports the idea that recentering the curriculum can improve learning for non-elite children without harming the learning of elite children. I'm hopeful that reforms which improve learning for a majority of children can be politically feasible. Top ↑
Question about the falsification tests in Tanzania: If I understood correctly, you looked at 7th graders’ exams, with 3rd and 4th standards as your control group. But what outcome were you using? You didn't have Grade 7 exam data for 3rd and 4th graders, nor simple assessment data for 3rd/4th graders, right?
Isaac Mbiti: Yes, you are correct those are two different exams. The main purpose of this exercise was to rule out any other trends or patterns that may be driving our results. Since 7th grade exams are very important to schools, we thought they would provide a good falsification test for our analysis. We have also recently examined the reform using the Uwezo data which asks the same questions to all primary school aged children. Our results using that data are broadly in line and we also find no effect of the diff-in-diff on 7th grade test scores using Uwezo data. Top ↑
Recently a survey in India showed that 50 percent of the children are in private schools. Under such a scenario, how do you see the improvement in student learning outcomes being linked to the political sentiment?
Wayne Sandholtz: This is really interesting to think about, although I can only really speculate. Despite the huge recent increase in private schooling in India and elsewhere, my guess is that public schools will continue to play a huge role in the education system. And it's completely possible voters could hold politicians responsible for the government's management and regulation of the private school sector. In Liberia at least, my research showed that voters responded to a public-private school partnership. Top ↑
For more information regarding the event, including links to the papers that were presented, please visit the RISE Online Presentation Series event page.
RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.