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Towards More Effective Assessment Systems in Literacy: Lessons from Malawi

By Susanna Oh, Global Literacy Intern

Large-scale assessments of literacy

While measuring competencies in literacy has been a common practice for decades, it gained international prioritization with the Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDG) campaign for universal primary education. As discussed in last year’s EPDC Policy Brief, a range of external literacy assessments have been developed to identify gains in the global campaign against illiteracy. Each of these assessments serves a different purpose and offers a different lens for understanding literacy. However, while results from these assessments can provide a snapshot of regional or country-level literacy achievements, they provide little support to teaching and learning at the classroom level.

Towards a more effective assessment system

As the post-2015 agenda clearly focuses on quality learning, greater attention must be given to assessments that can boost quality at the classroom level. An effective assessment system will therefore focus not only on national examinations and large-scale national assessments, but also on assessments that improve teaching and learning on a daily basis. Such regular assessments are called continuous assessments (CA) and include both formative and summative assessments. CA allows both teachers and students to understand student progress throughout primary school—not just at the end of primary school when it is too late to respond. By implementing continuous classroom assessments that improve student learning incrementally over the course of the school year, teachers and students can adjust their practices to increase learning and demonstrate greater success in large-scale assessments and national examinations. 

Table 1. An effective assessment system will include a range of assessments that can be used to boost learning

The success of the continuous assessment approach is most aptly demonstrated in Finland’s educational model, which builds teachers’ expertise in applying student-centered classroom assessments instead of large-scale, standardized testing. Even though it focuses on classroom-level assessments, Finland continues to outperform other countries in international testing such as PISA.  

These practices in continuous assessment are now spreading across the Global South. The following case study on Malawi is one good example of the effectiveness of CA in this context.  

A Case Study of Malawi

Figure 1. Map of Malawi

Malawi is a small, dense country located in southern Africa, land-locked between Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania. The country ranks amongst the poorest in the world at 174 out of 187 countries with a gross national income per capita of only $750. With 80 percent of the 16 million residents living in rural areas, there have been inevitable difficulties in reaching the educational needs of the many vulnerable children across the country. While Malawi has reached a net enrollment rate of 83 percent in the primary grades, the system continues to be characterized by ongoing deficiencies. This includes a high teacher-to-pupil ratio, as high as 184:1 in some Standard 1 classrooms, insufficient teaching resources and unsanitary learning conditions. This learning environment illustrates not only the country’s economic challenges but also reflects an educational system that has lacked the necessary infrastructure to support student learning. 

Recent efforts to reform their assessment policies, however, has been a step forward in setting standards for improved teaching and learning. Between 1964 and 2004, Malawi did not have any clear national policies regulating educational assessments, except for national examinations.[i] Internal efficiency of the educational system was therefore based largely on examination results and educational indicators such as enrollment, dropout and survival rates, pupil-to-teacher and pupil-to-textbook ratios to inform decisions made by the Ministry. In 2007, Malawi participated in the SACMEQ assessment, which revealed that 37 percent of Grade 6 students read below the lowest performance benchmark (level 3 – basic reading) and 60 percent tested below this benchmark in mathematics (level 3 – basic numeracy).

Additionally, according to USAID’s baseline EGRA in the country, approximately 77 percent of Standard 2 students could not read a single letter name and 42 percent of Standard 4 students could not read a single syllable, despite Chichewa being a syllabically-driven language. Building on these preliminary findings, efforts have been taken to establish policies for school-level assessments that will advance rather than simply measure learning.

Recognizing the need for improved classroom practice, USAID/Malawi funded a feasibility study as a part of the Improving Educational Quality Project (IEQ) in partnership with the Malawi Institute of Education (MIE). The study was conducted in third grade classrooms across 21 schools in the Ntdeau district to evaluate the effectiveness of CA. These results were compared to a control group in the neighboring district of Balaka.

The CA model incorporated the development of curriculum-based assessments in English, Math and Chichewa with specific performance-based tasks for six stages of progress. After determining each student’s initial stage, students could advance throughout the year upon demonstrating mastery of the CA tasks designated for their current level. This progress was carefully monitored by teachers through ongoing assessments by using ‘happy faces’ on a classroom Rainbow Progress Chart, which would later be used to report results to parents and to the community. Teachers’ positive reinforcements and encouragement during the assessment process not only reduced student anxiety, but also empowered students to recognize their own achievements and monitor their progress with their teachers. Further, as teachers became more aware of their students’ strengths and weaknesses, they were able to adjust their instruction through remediation and enrichment to support their students’ learning. The final program assessment, prepared by the IEQ team, demonstrated striking gains compared to the control group at the end of the intervention, particularly in English literacy. The test group, for example, improved by 54 percentage points in letter and sound identification compared to a gain of 19 percentage points in the control group as shown in the figure below.

Despite the challenges of Malawi’s resource-constrained environment, the successes of the study helped to legitimize the efficacy of CA in difficult classroom contexts, resulting in further testing in the Malawi Break Through to Literacy (MBTL) and Literacy Across Curriculum (LAC) interventions. Its continued success warranted the inclusion of CA as a vital component of the national curriculum reform efforts in Malawi’s Primary Curriculum Assessment Reform (PCAR). This new curriculum now validates the process of gathering reliable evidence of student learning using a variety of tools such as scoring rubrics, tests, checklists and portfolios. Teachers are trained and expected to record and report student progress as well as develop curriculum-based activities to evaluate learning.

As we celebrate International Literacy Day, let us not only consider the gains that have been made but also critical next steps that can be taken to ensure that the right to quality learning in literacy is provided for all. A continuous assessment system is one critical next step.  

[i] Chulu, B. W. (2013). Institutionalisation of assessment capacity in developing nations: the case of Malawi. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice20(4), 407-423.


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