In 2019, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and the World Bank introduced the notion of a “learning poverty rate,” or the share of children who cannot read or comprehend a simple text at the age of 10.
Figures that emerged before the coronavirus pandemic indicated that the average learning poverty rate in low- and middle-income countries was 57%. The rate surged to 70% last June, according to a report released last June by Unesco, UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), World Bank and its partners.
It was 90.1% in the Philippines, the report said. Indonesia and India had 43%; Malaysia, 42%; Thailand, 23%; Vietnam and China, 18%; Japan, 4%; and Singapore and South Korea, 3%.
Is it really true that 9 out of 10 Filipino children aged 10 cannot read?
To start with, the figures are not based on actual testing of the child’s reading ability but the result of simulations on existing data, the report explained. In the case of the Philippines, the calculations were made from the findings of Unicef’s Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEAPLM), a large-scale student learning assessment conducted in the region in 2019.
In the SEAPLM study conducted in English, a sample of 6,083 Filipino pupils in Grade 5 were tested in the domains of reading, writing, mathematics and global citizenship. The assessment results in reading indicated that the majority of those tested (63%) met the reading proficiency expected at the end of Grade 5. This meant that an average Grade 5 pupil should be able to read a range of everyday texts and engage with their meanings.
The SEAPLM-Philippine Report released in 2021 also indicated that girls outperformed boys, that learners from private schools did better than those from public schools, and that students from certain administrative regions had higher scores.
So if the 2019 testing indicated that 63% of Grade 5 students (in the Philippines, these are students with ages 10-11) met the reading proficiency for their grade, how come we have a low figure of 10% of 10-year-old children who could read and understand a simple text? The 2022 Report explained that the study’s simulations had taken into account the impact of Covid-19, such as school closures.
Our school teachers have the closest and perhaps the most accurate understanding of the reading levels of their pupils. But to what extent is such information collected and made part of a triangulation to grasp the extent of the literacy challenge?
Evidence from learning assessments, surveys and reports help us not only to understand the gravity of the problem but also to point to possible solutions. In the case of the 2022 statistics on the Philippines, we need to review and unpack the figures and analyze their connection to reality.
As we observe International Literacy Day on Sept. 8, we are well reminded to reflect on how the Philippines is testing and measuring the reading competencies of children, youth and adults. Children, for one, are tested for their reading skills in the classrooms.
But how are these tests relevant and related to assessing the education efforts of the country as a whole, its neighbors, and the rest of the world? Indeed, we can only respond to the learning poverty data if we are actually able to read and interpret the evidence appropriately.
Carolyn Medel-Anonuevo is a former head of education of Unesco’s regional office in Southern Africa. She was also deputy director at the Unesco Institute for Lifelong Learning, which is responsible for literary and adult education. —Ed.