Developing a holistic national student assessment system can be a colossal undertaking but strategic measures can produce results.
The need for large-scale student learning assessments and educational reforms globally has never been greater. As developing countries strive to catch up to their developed counterparts, measuring learning outcomes is imperative in improving education quality, particularly when revolutionary technological changes demand higher order skills.
A recent UNESCO report shows that more than 150 countries undertook national student assessments at the primary and secondary levels in the last five years.
These learning assessments are only useful if they are used in a meaningful way. The end goal is not the measurement itself; rather, assessments should be used to improve education quality. But few countries have done this. When they do, assessments are often turned into high-stakes events that defeat the purpose of improving learning.
The Republic of Korea, which is consistently at the top of international standardized assessment rankings, offers lessons for those aiming to develop a more effective assessment system, according to a recent ADB study. Korea is one of the few countries to implement a robust and holistic student assessment – the National Assessment of Educational Achievement - that was designed to improve education quality.
The needs and constraints of each country are complex. However, Korea’s experience can offer useful lessons on developing an effective student assessment system. A few of the most salient lessons from the study are outlined below.
First, set up the right governance structure. The Korean government set up the high-caliber independent research institute, Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, to design and administer the national student assessment as well as to provide long-term technical support for improving the assessment system. Two points warrant emphasis. The institute was established as an autonomous entity, separate from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. This prevented potential conflicts of interest or opportunities to misrepresent assessment results. In addition, it was also made responsible for the curriculum. This enabled an effective feedback mechanism for linking learning assessment results to reform curricula, and vice versa.
Second, promote transparency for greater accountability. To improve school accountability, the education ministry for almost a decade mandated that all schools disclose their national assessment results. This was made possible by switching from a sample-based to a census-based assessment covering every single student in assessed grades. In the Korean example, schools reported the share of students in each of the assessment’s four achievement categories on a school information disclosure website.
Eventually, schools were also mandated to report yearly progress against targets specific to each individual school. The School Progress Index gives a measure of the extent to which each school met its own expected achievement on the national assessment. These practices allowed meaningful use of the learning outcome data.
Third, focus on improving learning beyond just raising accountability. This is especially so for underachieving students. The Republic of Korea did this in two ways. It used the assessment data to provide administrative and financial support for schools that needed it. Its Zero Plan for Below-Basic Students used the national assessment results to identify schools in which a high share of students falls below the basic level. These “schools for improvement” received financial support that allowed them to implement programs such as conducting remedial classes for low performing students. Moreover, local communities and education officials took active roles in supporting teachers for helping low performing students instead of placing the burden solely on teachers.
Also, the national assessment itself incorporates supplementary information on factors that affect learning. It combines testing of cognitive skills with a survey of school features, teacher background and student’s socio-emotional characteristics. This supplementary information was included in each student’s individual assessment report to provide a holistic understanding of what affects their learning - including environmental as well as socio-emotional factors.
Actions to improve learning based on the National Assessment of Educational Achievement are further complemented by other programs, such as those that offer counseling to students affected by bullying or students at risk of delinquent behavior.
Developing a holistic student assessment system can be a colossal undertaking. However, strategic measures can produce results. In the Republic of Korea, the share of students falling below the basic achievement level on the national assessment decreased significantly after these key initiatives were undertaken. Other countries can adapt the Republic of Korea’s lessons and hope to achieve similar gains.