Why Johnnies Around the World Can’t Read

A classroom in Monrovia, Liberia Photograph by Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images

The University of Liberia last week issued the results of its entrance examination, which tests students on the basis of what they should have learned from their high school curriculum in English and math. Places at the university were hotly contested—25,000 people paid the $25 fee to take the test. For the first time, the exam was implemented independently, to reduce the risk of favoritism and corruption. The results made Harvard’s admissions ratio (where 1 in 17 applicants is accepted) look like that of a commuter school: Every single applicant was rejected on the basis of a failing exam grade.

Under pressure from Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the university was forced to regrade on a curve and let in the top 1,800 scorers. But the president has admitted the country’s schools are struggling. And, sadly, Liberia’s woes are hardly unique. Around the developing world, hundreds of millions of students are learning only a fraction of what the syllabuses suggest they should, and often they leave school without even a basic grasp of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Unaddressed, the global learning challenge is likely to become a serious drag on worldwide growth.

Of the world’s population, about 7 out of 10 live in a country where pretty much every child completes primary school. The proportion of secondary-school-aged kids who are in classes has climbed from about half to two-thirds over the past 15 years. The trouble is, a lot of those enrolled appear to be learning very little. In India only a little more than a quarter of the children who complete primary school can read a simple passage, perform division, tell time, and handle money—all skills that should be mastered by the end of second grade. And while eighth-grade enrollment increased to 87 percent from 82 percent of school-aged children in the country from 2006 to 2011, the fraction of enrolled children who could do long division fell to 57 percent from 70 percent—suggesting that despite more of them going to school, fewer kids actually learned basic math over that time.

At higher academic levels, the problem may be even worse. In Liberia only 308 of the university entrance exam takers passed the 50 percent grade for math, and not a single applicant scored the passing 70 percent grade in English. Analysis by Harvard’s Lant Pritchett suggests that the average eighth-grader in Ghana has test scores on math and science that would place her in the bottom one-five-hundredth of U.S. students. Even richer and more successful countries such as Argentina or Indonesia see scores on international math and science tests that would rank the average test-taker in the bottom 10 percent of the student population of a country like Denmark.

The learning gap helps to explain how developing countries can be so poor despite high educational attainment. In 2010 the average Kenyan adult had spent more years in school than the average French adult had as recently as 1985. Sadly, that didn’t convert into a Kenyan income per capita equal to France’s two decades ago—in fact, the gross domestic product per head in Kenya in 2010 was only 7 percent of France’s in 1985.

There’s no single cause behind the learning crisis in developing-country schools. Students who are poorly nourished and come from homes without books or literate parents have a tougher time learning. Teachers who don’t turn up, don’t care to teach, or don’t understand the material are all too common. The lack of books and supplies makes the job of teaching a lot harder. But it isn’t just an issue of resources: From 2007 to 2011, India increased its per-student expenditure on elementary education by 80 percent while student learning outcomes were declining.

One underlying factor is that parents simply don’t know how little their kids are learning in school. Across the developing world, all too few countries carry out and then publish student assessments. Take Uganda, where more than two-thirds of recently surveyed adults suggested that the government was addressing educational needs “fairly well or very well.” Subsequent assessments by a civil society group, however, found that less than one-fifth of fourth-grade students passed literacy and math tests designed to evaluate second-grade competency. If countries began to regularly, independently test learning outcomes and publish the results down to the school level—and then gave principals and teachers the flexibility to improve outcomes—that could help create the momentum for reform and improvement.

Testing is cheap—reviews of experience across countries suggests that an assessment system rarely costs more than 0.3 percent of the education budget. And countries that have introduced testing as part of a school reform effort have shown real results. Brazil and Chile have both introduced all-student testing regimes alongside accountability and autonomy reforms over the past few years, and both have seen better performance in international student assessments—Chile improved student learning at the fastest rate worldwide from 1995 to 2011.

If countries like Liberia and India want decent candidates for university places at national universities, and want a return on their considerable investments in schools and teachers, it’s time they recognized schooling isn’t the same as learning. They need to focus considerably more effort on measuring—and then improving—learning outcomes.

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