How does one measure learning? Assessment on the quality of learning are crucial for policy as governments and development agencies need to understand the extent at which initiatives to transform education, learning, are materializing. There are assessments at regional and national level in sub-Saharan Africa, yet there is no comparable measure of learning across countries (World Bank, 2009) to show learning challenges in context and to benchmark countries’ progress.

According to the Brookings Institution, the Africa Learning Barometer used assessment data on literacy and numeracy at primary for 28 countries.  Although data was not comparable, it sheds light on the depth and nature of the problem.  More needs to be done to understand the nature of the learning challenge affecting children’s development at pre-school, primary school and post-primary school and across a range of learning domains.

The multidimensional nature of quality, quantity and relevance makes the measurement of learning very complex. Education quantity can be measured using enrollment rates, school attendance rates, school drop-out rates or completed years of schooling, each of which conveys different information.

Learning outcomes can be measured in a variety of ways, including mastery of cognitive abilities, knowledge acquisition or acquisition of practical skills. In the economics of education literature, measurement of education quality has typically focused on education inputs, although there is an increasing awareness of the need to focus on learning outcomes and the learning processes. Measurement of education relevance in relation to the labor market has been more limited, although there is a groundswell of private sector interest in the topic, leading to recent research by McKinsey & Company and others.

Research has shown that the current measures of education quality in sub-Saharan Africa often fail to capture important aspects of learning that cannot easily be demonstrated by cognitive tasks.  For example, children from pastoral communities may not be able to perform simple addition but may benefit from a teacher’s guidance to become more responsible or to use logical reasoning to care for a large herd and identify when livestock are missing.

Children learn productivity-enhancing behavioral attributes that are acquired through schooling, such as punctuality, teamwork, honesty, interpersonal skills and loyalty even if they are not building academic skills. These attributes are rarely accounted for in current forms of assessment though they are linked with a range of life outcomes.

The question still remains, what or how do we best measure learning in such a way that it affects policy positively?