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13 Nov 2013

Who are the Competitors in the Global Measurement Sweepstakes?

By Alexandra Draxler, former UNESCO education specialist.

The report of the UN High level Panel, A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development, explains that a “data revolution” is essential to improve the quality of statistics and information available to citizens, as well as to assess progress towards global targets. National targets “should be set to be as ambitious as practical, and in some cases global minimum standards that apply to every individual should be set” (p.15). The panel acknowledges that targets should apply to all groups (“as defined by gender, quintile, location or otherwise”). However, it is likely that the international funds mobilized will be dedicated principally to the development of cross-national tools and data, pushing nations to fall in line with them. Will this proposed data revolution benefit those who need it most: developing nations’ poorest citizens? Is it the best way to tackle education inequality? We have to wonder.

The period since 1990, when an earlier version of the EFA Goals was first floated, has taught us much about the opportunity costs of excessive attention to a few education indicators. The most prominent example is the perverse effect on quality of learning in many countries produced by the priority allocation of resources to meet 2015 universal primary enrolment targets. Neglect of development of secondary education is another.

New assessment and data collection initiatives using international metrics and benchmarking (e.g. Pisa for Development, SABER, EGRA) certainly claim to emphasize quality improvements and efforts to reduce inequality. Nevertheless, international standardization raises questions related to appropriateness, opportunity costs, and principal beneficiaries. International financing will be mobilized, international groups will lead the charge, and league tables will be developed. Some might conclude that these are not the most important priorities and that they will undoubtedly have significant resource displacement effects on local capacity development and on-the-ground policy formulation.

Perhaps we can use three broad questions as lenses for these concerns: Are international metrics the priority tools for helping countries improve the quality and equality of education? Does widespread standardized testing reliably inform about learning acquisition, provide appropriate accountability, and improve teacher and learner performance? Who stands to gain the most from the use of worldwide standardized performance indicators?

The answer to the question about appropriate priorities is related largely to displacement effects. Education systems are profoundly anchored in local and national contexts. A major international push to expand the gathering of internationally-comparable data about national systems will necessarily result in building more capacity at the international than the local level. In many poor countries, tools and capacity for monitoring the most basic features of education are scanty or entirely lacking. Searching for knowledge about the situation and needs of unreached minorities or individuals is often not embedded in local practice. Perhaps this new era would see the great progress hoped for if there were an absolute priority on building capacity from the bottom up.

International standardized testing, if widely used, would have the effect of ironing out many indispensable differences (within nations and sub-national entities) in curricula; focusing on the acquisition of knowledge-based competencies; minimizing the effect and contribution of context, culture and language on learning; and discouraging teachers from  tailoring their efforts to individual needs. Furthermore, we already have ample evidence that benchmarking of individuals and systems creates competition and stress that is detrimental to optimum learning of individuals and functioning of institutions.

Finally, it might be argued that the main winners of the international benchmarking movement will be the producers of the measurement tools. One of the three co-chairs of the Learning Metrics Task Force is the chief education advisor of the publishing conglomerate Pearson. An international corporation such as Pearson, or a mixed profit-non-profit group such as the Educational Testing Service, have powerful financial incentives (and up-front policies) for standardization of methods, materials, and evaluation tools across different markets. They now may have the inside track for developing them and early access to the markets they will represent.

Alexandra Draxler is an independent consultant. Email:

This blog is based on a presentation made by the author at a NORRAG meeting on “The Brave New World of Data for Education and Development” on 23rd September 2013 in Geneva.

Disclaimer: The views given in this blog are those of the author alone and should not be attributed to NORRAG or its members. Readers are invited to comment below.  

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