A Sound Investment: The Benefits of Large-Scale Learning Assessments

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), and David Coleman, Senior Education Advisor at Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Head of the Strategic Planning Committee of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML)

This blog was also published by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). 

As delegates gather in New Delhi for the South Asia Regional Conference on Using Large-Scale Assessments to Improve Teaching and Learning, a new synthesis paper from the UIS makes the case for greater investment.

It’s time to make a much stronger case for investment in the data we need to reach Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on education. The clock is ticking towards the 2030 deadline for quality education for every child and adolescent but, as recent data show, there are still too many out of school and too many who are not learning what they need to know.

Such evidence provides a much-needed ‘carrot and stick.’ Good data is a very attractive carrot, helping decision makers to target their available resources for maximum impact. Strong evidence is also a useful stick, helping to hold governments and key stakeholders to account for their policies and investment choices.

Making the case for large-scale assessments of learning

There is, however, a problem – particularly on measuring learning outcomes. Not all countries conduct national assessments or participate in cross-national (regional or international) assessments of learning. This poses a real challenge for the basic information needed to monitor and report on progress towards SDG 4. So it’s time to set out the financial advantages of educational assessments, and most particularly the large-scale cross-national assessments, that can support the pursuit of national education priorities.

A new synthesis paper from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) explains how many countries already use data from these large-scale assessments to enhance their educational practice and policy. It also spells out the implications for investment in education resources and the potential challenges.

The paper draws on the Review of the Use of Cross-National Assessment Data in Educational Practice and Policy and builds on the UIS Investment Case for SDG 4 Data, which compares the resources needed to produce the global and thematic indicators in relation to the costs of doing business as usual. It is also aligned with work by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to unpack what actually works to get kids into school, keep them there and learning. 

Investments in cross-national assessments have had clear benefits, as shown in Table 1. In these examples, we have seen more resources being targeted to various aspects of education

Table 1. Resources invested on the basis of cross-national assessments

Area of resource investment

Examples of actions taken by countries

Teachers, training, and professional development

  • New online in-service professional development programmes for teachers and leaders
  • Teacher training workshops/integrating technology into classroom activities
  • Incentives to participate in in-service teacher training programmes, encouraging high-performing students to join the teaching profession through incentives, and increasing salaries
  • Improving teachers’ pedagogical skills and teaching literacy
  • Incentives for teachers

Education funding

  • Increasing budget for education to provide primary and secondary education with additional financial resources to reduce class size, raise teacher salaries, and develop infrastructure
  • Several initiative investments to strengthen literacy development, including a generous Quality Education Fund
  • Funding programmes to promote reading and literacy
  • Donors helping to stimulate a policy response in terms of resource allocation in part through the administration of the assessment
  • Interventions based on the findings, which are also used to influence policy dialogue and action

Education materials and time resources

  • An increase in classroom instruction time dedicated to mathematics leading to improved scores
  • Reduction in teacher shortages as a result of policy changes and efforts
  • Hybrid assessment data being incorporated into a national assessment system to inform curriculum and instruction
  • Hybrid assessment data to inform the development of materials and strategies for teaching and continuous assessment
  • Influencing the national educational programme, resulting in the allocation of significant funding to the building of classrooms, providing instructional materials, and addressing out-of-school children through non-formal education programmes


The variations in the extent to which countries have benefited from cross-national assessments only serve to reinforce the argument for more investment, with the countries making the greatest use of the findings reaping the greatest benefits.

Figure 1 shows the geographic distribution of large-scale learning assessments. The data gaps are apparent, with many countries – particularly in South Asia and parts of Africa – not participating in any form of cross-national assessment. Some gaps are linked to lack of coverage: for example, a regional assessment for South Asia does not yet exist.

Some gaps are linked to national capacity issues, with countries lacking the financial or technical capacity to administer national learning assessments or join cross-national learning assessments. We must also recognise that some countries are reluctant to join regional or international assessments out of concern of being compared to those with better resourced education systems. The vast majority of non-participating countries are either low-income or lower-middle-income countries.

Figure 1. Geographic distribution of large-scale learning assessments

Source: UIS Quick Guide #2: Making the Case for a Learning Assessment

Figure 2 summarises the degree to which countries have used cross-national and regional assessments to shape their education systems. The darker the blue: the greater the application. For example, New Zealand is making more use of – and gaining more from – cross-national assessment data than Canada and the United States. They, in turn, are benefiting more than Brazil and the Russian Federation. A comparison between Figures 1 and 2 shows that some countries participate in large-scale assessments but do not apply the data from these assessments directly to educational policy and planning.

Figure 2. Countries using cross-national assessments in educational policy and practice

Source: Review of the Use of Cross-National Assessment Data in Educational Practice and Policy

Better data for better education

By showing the clear benefits, we want to help mobilise the necessary resources – whether domestic or supported by donors – to close the data gaps on cross-national assessments, and to emphasise the financial and student performance benefits of applying the lessons from assessment results to targeted policy making and to operational practice. This would be a ‘win-win’ for the effectiveness of national education systems and for the production of internationally comparable data.

We already know the immense value of education itself. Study after study has confirmed the vast benefits of education for each individual and for every society. We know that education plays a critical role in helping people to lift themselves out of poverty, improve their own quality of life and increasing their chances of contributing to the economic well-being of their communities and countries.

It is high time we positioned the collection and meaningful use of education data as a crucial part of this education narrative – as one of the most fundamental prerequisites for progress towards the world’s education goals.

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