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Monitoring progress towards SDG 4 in Southeast Asia
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Monitoring progress towards SDG 4 in Southeast Asia

Research 6 minute read

The Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Centre supports countries in Southeast Asia to report progress towards United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, quality education for all.

The GEM Centre has provided technical and financial support for the development of described proficiency scales in reading literacy, mathematical literacy and writing literacy for the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM), the first large-scale assessment of learning outcomes of Grade 5 students in Southeast Asia. The proficiency descriptors enable participating countries to report the proportion of students meeting global minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics at the end of primary school (SDG 4.1).

SEA-PLM is jointly conducted by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), with technical support from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). The assessment was undertaken in six Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries – including Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines and Viet Nam.

The proficiency scales in reading literacy, mathematical literacy and writing literacy developed by ACER for SEA-PLM are underpinned by an empirical scale based on actual student responses from participating countries. Each proficiency scale is divided into bands of different student proficiency levels. These bands were developed by grouping test items based on item content and difficulty, enabling descriptions of student proficiency for each band, in each domain. Student’s learning levels cannot be compared across domains.

The proficiency within each band is described to illustrate what children know and can do, based on SEA-PLM 2019 test questions. Children in the lowest band (Band 2 and below) for reading, can identify relationships between words and their meanings in their language of instruction. Those in Band 6 and above, can understand texts with familiar structures and manage competing information when locating ideas and understanding details. For mathematics, children in the lowest band (Band 2 and below) may be able to add single digit numbers together, and others might only be able to count a small collection of objects or recognise numbers. Children in Band 6 and above are able to perform mathematical operations including with fractions, and interpret tables and graphs.

Children are considered proficient in a band within a domain when they correctly answer, on average, at least half of the questions in that band. Children in the highest band for each of the SEA PLM proficiency scales master the fundamental skills expected of them by the end of primary school. These children are more likely to develop 21st century skills such as communication, use of technology and critical thinking.

The SEA-PLM proficiency descriptors have been developed using a ‘literacy approach’, which emphasises that reading, writing and mathematical skills go beyond the classroom to the application of knowledge and understanding in daily life. A literacy approach increases children’s ability to solve problems, think creatively and critically, communicate their understanding and collaborate with others in a learning domain. Literacy is integral to children’s ability to achieve personal goals and to contribute socially and economically to society.

Defining, measuring and understanding learning through a literacy approach is a key focus area of the GEM Centre. A common definition of learning underpinned by common learning progressions enable common benchmarks to be established across different contexts, e.g. countries. This provides the opportunity to define policy targets for learning across contexts and over time, and to understand the learning progress of education systems, as well as individual children.

Through SEA-PLM, there is now a common set of proficiency descriptors that enable participating countries to measure and report overall student performance across contexts and over time, and to align with the SDGs. This provides countries with a rich data source for further analysis and a basis to set future targets. The data can be used by the participating countries to review and map their curricula, teacher standards and assessment frameworks against SEA-PLM metrics. Altogether, this will lead to a better understanding of children’s performance and learning contexts, and opportunities to improve learning.

The SEA-PLM 2019 reading and mathematical proficiency scales have been designed so that participating countries can report their overall national progress towards SDG 4.1 targets. This is possible through the alignment of the SEA-PLM proficiency descriptors with the minimum proficiency levels defined by the SDGs for indicators 4.1.1a (end of lower primary) and 4.1.1b (end of primary).

A significant finding of SEA-PLM 2019 is that many students are not meeting the minimum proficiency levels defined by the SDGs for reading and mathematics. The percentage of students meeting the minimum reading and mathematics levels expected for the end of primary is as low as 2 and 8 percent respectively in one country. In fact, one in three children in Grade 5 are performing at the level expected in the early years of primary education. As outlined in a recent blog by Dr. Ethel Agnes Pascua-Valenzuela, SEAMEO - Secretariat, and Francisco Benavides, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific, SEA-PLM results demonstrate that learning for all children is still a far-off goal.

A vision for SEA-PLM is that all countries in Southeast Asia join the SEA-PLM 2023 cycle. This would enable existing countries to measure student growth and new countries to use an established framework to report the status and future progress towards the SDGs. The in-depth knowledge gained through the use of minimum proficiency descriptors will enable countries to understand where children are at in their learning and what needs to be strengthened, and ultimately, will improve the learning outcomes for primary school students.

About the GEM Centre
The Global Education Monitoring (GEM Centre) is a long-term, strategic partnership between ACER and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Our goal through the GEM Centre is to improve learning outcomes for all by ensuring that education policies, practices and investments are influenced by high-quality data. Find out more about the GEM Centre.

Further reading

Read the SEA-PLM 2019 Main Regional Report

Watch this SEA-PLM video

Learn more about SEA-PLM

Read the SEA-PLM 2019 Trial testing report (2018)

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