New UNESCO Database Tracks Student Assessments Around the World

Every three years Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa, issues written exams to public school students in grades 2, 4 and 7. The math test runs 120 minutes; the Chichewa language exam is 90 minutes; and the English language assessment is 90 minutes. Test items consist of multiple choice questions with three or more response options and open-ended questions requiring short constructed responses. Processing of all the results is handled manually by a division in the Malawi Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

Thailand students take an annual assessment in grades 6, 9 and 12 in both public and private schools. The final score determines promotion to the next grade and whether or not the student will be allowed to enter certain higher education programs. The tests cover eight different subjects, each lasting between 30 and 120 minutes, depending on grade level. Test processing is handled by automated scanning.

These are two of the dozens of assessment profiles recently collected through an international program to boost education. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) has developed a public learning assessments database and a catalog of learning assessments to provide policymakers and education leaders with specific kinds of information about how different countries measure learning, what data they gather through assessments and how they use the data.

The Database on Learning Assessments provides standardized information on public exams and national learning assessments conducted around the world. Currently, about 61 countries have entered data about their student testing into the database. Data about assessment within the United States currently isn't included.

For details about the different kinds of assessments, the UIS Catalogue of Learning Assessments collects and provides descriptive information on the exams each country participates in.

Both resources were developed as part of UNESCO's Education 2030 initiative to monitor education progress globally. As a first step participating countries need to come up with indicators that will work uniformly, and the data collection work is part of that.

"Our first goal is for countries themselves to know what others are doing in terms of assessment," said UIS Director Sylvia Montoya, in a blog article. "The database and catalogue are great tools for countries to see how much is possible — because others are already doing it — and how they could achieve this sort of systematic measurement of learning themselves. And this can also show the international community that countries are really capable of making progress in this area. After all, 80 percent of countries already have some type of national or cross-national assessment!"

Montoya said she expected initial interest in the data to come from people in charge of education planning and assessment as well as researchers trying to gain "a cross-country perspective on how different aspects of learning are being measured."

"Donors and citizens themselves may also be interested in seeing for themselves what is going on in their own countries and around the world," she added.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.