London School of Economics and Centre for the Studies of the Economies of Africa (CSEA)
Measuring Learning Is Key to Reaching Education Goals: The Case of Nigeria
Learning assessments have played a key role in highlighting the extent of the learning crisis in Nigeria. The next step to addressing learning is improving assessments to close data gaps that still exist, and responding to evidence from them.
Large-scale learning assessments conducted in Nigeria have been crucial in examining the breadth and depth of the nation’s learning crisis. Results of learning assessments conducted over the last 25 years indicate five things:
- Literacy and numeracy attainments at the basic school level are consistently low.
- Attainment rates have been declining over time.
- Foundational skills acquired at an early age stimulate advanced learning.
- Assessing children early and at various grade levels is critical.
- Any policy, effort, or programme to improve learning outcomes must be informed by context. A review of the modalities of the various assessments in Nigeria suggests that developing a diverse variety of more adequate assessments will, amongst other things, drive the reforms required in Nigeria’s education system and help to ensure that the education system is aligned with the goal of learning.
“To take learning seriously, start by measuring it” - Filmer at al., 2018
Nigeria is facing an enduring learning crisis. Not only is the nation home to the largest number of out-of-school children in the world (UNICEF, 2019), but available evidence suggests that learning levels for children in school are low (Adeniran et al., 2020). Results of learning assessments conducted over the last 25 years indicate two things: literacy and numeracy attainments at the basic school level are consistently low, and attainment rates have been declining over time.
Such learning assessments are a critical measure of learning at different levels of education, as they reveal whether students are attaining minimum benchmarks of learning objectives. There is widespread consensus that the data these assessments produce will be key to addressing the learning crisis (Figlio et al., 2016).
Taking stock of Nigeria’s large-scale learning assessments
Historically, national assessments of learning achievements in Nigeria have been sparse. However, this has changed over the past two decades, and assessments are increasing in number and diversity. Below, I delineate available assessments at the basic education level, compare their findings, and discuss how well they improve the understanding of the learning crisis in Nigeria.1
Monitoring Learning Assessment (MLA)
The first nationwide assessment of learning at the primary school level in Nigeria was the Monitoring Learning Assessment (MLA) project conducted in 1996 by the Federal Ministry of Education (FME) and supported by UNESCO and UNICEF (Falayajo et al., 1996). It was conducted on only Primary 4 students in three subject areas: literacy, numeracy, and life skills (Falayajo et al., 1996).
Although it was generally known that Nigerian students had low learning levels, the depth and extent of the learning crisis were revealed by the MLA assessments. Barely one in five students demonstrated the competency expected based on the goal of the curriculum for the level of education they were attending. Disaggregated data also revealed that while there were inequalities across groups, the low achievements cut across all categories of learners, irrespective of gender, type of school attended, and location; no category of learners acquired the 50 percent pass mark.
The assessment was conducted again in 2003 and 2011, and the target population was expanded to include Primary 6 students. This was beneficial in two ways. First, data availability across multiple years allowed for observing trends in literacy and numeracy rates. Using data from the Primary 4 assessments, literacy mean scores slightly increased between 1996 and 2003 but declined between 2003 and 2011. Similarly, there was an increase in numeracy rates between 1996 and 2003 and a decline in 2011 from the 2003 rates. Literacy and numeracy levels for Primary six students also reduced between 2003 and 2011, from approximately 41 percent to 35 percent in literacy and 36 percent to 31 percent in numeracy.
Second, there was barely any improvement in learning outcomes between Primary 4 and 6 students. While more Primary 6 students demonstrated the expected competency in literacy than Primary 4 students in both 2003 and 2011, the difference was small (41 vs 35 percent in 2003; and 39 vs 31 percent in 2011). However, for numeracy, fewer students in Primary 6 demonstrated the expected competency for the grade level, compared to Primary 4; 43 percent vs 35 percent in 2003 and 36 percent vs 31 percent in 2011.
Finally, the MLA highlighted the importance of comparable cross-country surveys. To date, it remains one of the most relevant attempts at measuring the quality of basic education in Nigeria, given that it is regionally representative and flexible to cross-country comparisons. The MLA surveyed other students across several African countries, allowing for situating Nigeria’s performance against other countries. Results from the MLA assessment revealed that, compared to students in 21 other African countries, Nigerian students lagged and had the poorest performance on the continent (World Bank, 2003; Adekola, 2007).
National Assessment on Learning Achievement in Basic Education (NALABE)
In 2001, 2003, and 2017, under the Universal Basic Education (UBE) program, the FME conducted a national assessment called the National Assessment on Learning Achievement in Basic Education (NALABE).2 Like the MLA, NALABE was a school-based assessment initially conducted on only Primary 4 students in English and mathematics.
Analysis of learning outcomes across both years suggests low and declining performances. In 2003, the national mean score for English was 25 percent, compared to 40 percent in 2001. For numeracy, the national mean score also reduced by about 3 percent between 2001 and 2003.
In terms of gender, differences were largely insignificant. For example, in 2017, girls outperformed boys by less than 1 percent in mathematics and English assessments.
Nigeria Education Data Survey (NEDS)
Between 2004 and 2021, the National Population Commission, with the support of international development partners and the FME, conducted four nationally representative household surveys known as the Nigerian Education Data Survey (NEDS).
The NEDS was a game-changer for several reasons. It was the first assessment to reduce the standards of defining literacy and numeracy skills to their most rudimentary level. For example, for literacy, a child is said to be literate if they can read at least one of three words in English or one of the three major national languages: Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba. A child is considered numerate if they can sum a single-digit addition problem (for example, 4 + 5). Second, the NEDS assesses literacy and numeracy scores of children between 5 - 15 years in and out of school, covering all levels of basic education (primary and junior secondary school).
Beyond revealing low learning levels, the NEDS revealed key things that other surveys did not. For example, based on the 2015 survey, only 10 percent of students in Primary 1 could correctly identify letters. In Primary 2, only 11 percent of students could read words, and only 15 percent could comprehend simple sentences. The results improved toward the end of primary school, but about 30 percent of Primary 6 students still could not comprehend simple sentences.
Performance increases slightly for numeracy, but the trend is similar to literacy outcomes. At Primary 1 and 2, 15 percent and 20 percent of students could identify numbers, and only 9 percent of Primary 2 students could solve double-digit problems. At the Primary 6 level, only 47 percent of children could solve double-digit problems. Analysing student learning outcomes from Primary 1 to 6 also revealed that learning levels were flat year to year, meaning that students did not perform progressively better on the assessments as they advanced through primary school (Adeniran et al., 2020).
Finally, like the MLA and NALABE assessments, the NEDS reveals only marginal gender differences in competencies, with girls slightly outperforming boys in literacy and numeracy.
Let’s Engage, Assess & Report Nigeria (LEARNigeria)
Let’s Engage, Assess & Report Nigeria (LEARNigeria), the only known citizen-based assessment in Nigeria, was conducted in 2017/2018 and assessed children aged 5-15 years on foundational literacy and numeracy skills based on the Nigerian curriculum.3 , 4 It is similar to the NEDS in that it assesses children at different ages and levels. The highest level in the assessment corresponds to the learning outcomes benchmark of Primary 2 according to the Nigerian curriculum.
Unlike the NEDS, LEARNigeria surveyed students from only six states representing the country's geopolitical spread: Akwa Ibom, Ebonyi, Lagos, Kano, Plateau, and Taraba. LEARNigeria also went further than the rudimentary assessment of the NEDS. The literacy assessment comprised five student proficiency levels ranging from the ability to identify letters to the ability to read stories. The numeracy assessment comprised six levels of proficiency, ranging from the ability to count and recognise numbers to the ability to perform addition, subtraction, and multiplication.
The results reveal low learning levels across all states, even in national languages. For example, in Ebonyi state, only 8 percent and 28 percent of Primary 3 students can read at the Primary 2 level in English. In Basic Igbo literacy, only 6.5 percent and 11 percent of surveyed students from Primary 3 and Primary 6 can read at the Primary 2 Igbo level. In Kano, only 10 percent of all children sampled could read at the Primary 2 story level, while many students could not read anything. For numeracy, the survey reported that only approximately 7 percent of students aged 8 (equivalent to Primary 3) could multiply at the Primary 2 level, and 45.5 percent of children aged 15 (equivalent to the last year of basic education) could multiply at the Primary 2 level.
The findings also reveal small and insignificant gender gaps in favour of girls in certain states and subject areas and boys in others. For example, in Akwa Ibom and Ebonyi states, girls had slightly better learning outcomes than boys in literacy and numeracy, while in Lagos and Kano states, girls had better outcomes than boys in literacy but not in numeracy.
Lessons from Nigeria’s assessments
Learning assessments have played a critical role in highlighting the levels of student learning in Nigeria, and the available learning assessments have highlighted contextual issues about Nigeria’s learning crisis. A few lessons emanate from these assessments:
- Learning levels are generally very low; even at Primary 6, students have not acquired basic foundational numeracy and literacy skills.
- Assessing children early and at various grade levels is critical. While the NALABE and MLA assessments highlight the depth of the learning crisis, their findings were limited because they reported learning levels and progress later in the primary school cycle. Therefore, the point at which students started falling behind was unknown. Assessments such as NEDS and LEARNigeria that track children at different grade levels and ages over time are more useful for tracking children’s learning progress.
- Foundational skills are important for advanced learning. For example, the NEDS and LEARNigeria surveys that tested foundational skills revealed that most students had not acquired expected competencies by the end of primary school. Performance level also dropped significantly as the difficulty of the assessment increased. According to the NEDS, more than 80 percent of Primary 6 children could identify numbers, but less than 50 percent could solve double-digit addition or subtraction, which they ought to have mastered in Primary 2.
- Any policy, effort, or programme to improve learning outcomes must be informed by context. For example, there is a big push in the global education community to focus on improving girls’ education. However, a key finding from Nigeria’s learning assessments is that there are no gender differences in the performance of in-school children. Learning outcomes are similar for girls and boys. This is consistent even when results are disaggregated by gender, pertinently in the north, where gender differences are expected to be stark due to cultural norms. For example, using a composite index of NEDS literacy and numeracy scores, learning outcomes for females nationally are 19 percent compared to 18 percent for males. In the northern region, 12 percent of females compared to 11 percent of males (Adeniran et al., 2020). This finding is consistent with both the MLA and NALABE assessments. This contrasts with learning assessments from adult surveys, such as the Demographic Health Survey, which show a significant gender difference in education. The learning assessments also yield other valuable insights into learning outcomes across key dimensions, such as differences between wealth quintiles, residential areas, and regions.
To achieve SDG4 on quality education for all, we must know what children learn early in the primary school cycle. This requires tracking children’s learning in the early years to ensure children achieve early mastery of basic skills, preparing them for more advanced learning.
While Nigeria has many learning assessments, the quality of assessments still needs improvement. For example, there are no available longitudinal assessments in Nigeria and no reliable international large-scale assessments that allow comparisons of education systems. Some existing surveys also use a limited view of literacy which offers little insight into students’ abilities. That said, the information available from existing assessments has started revealing the depth and extent of Nigeria’s learning crisis. Developing more adequate assessments will, amongst other things, drive the reforms required in Nigeria’s education system and help to ensure that the education system is aligned with the goal of learning.
Finally, while tracking learning is important, the supply of evidence from such assessments is a critical but insufficient tool for improving learning. Uptake of evidence from assessments in government policies and programs will be key in improving teaching and learning. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest such uptake in government policy or programs in Nigeria. Government efforts are still largely focused on improving enrolment for the nation's many out-of-school children. To facilitate reform in Nigeria’s education system, any effort channelled toward assessing learning must also focus on avenues that promote evidence uptake by the government.
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- 1For brevity, this case study addresses all available large-scale assessments except the Early Grade Assessment (EGRA). Findings from EGRA are consistent with those described below.
- 2Other assessments were conducted in 2006 and 2011, but findings are not readily available.
- 3Citizen-based assessments, according to UNESCO, are assessments led by citizens or civil society organisations rather than governments. These assessments are conducted in households rather than schools and measure basic reading and numeracy skills to improve the quality of education and learning.
- 4LEARNigeria is part of the global citizen-led assessment body, the PAL Network.
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