Student assessments are building a better future for education in the Pacific


Photo credit: Mark Rabe on Unsplash


Exams and assessments may be the most cringe-worthy aspects of our education journeys, from my-life-depends-on-this national exams to induction assessments to pop quizzes. We all have memories of different types of testing, from stories of anxiety to sudden bouts of overnight illness. So why do we need to go through all this stress?

Exams and tests are more than just ways to measure an individual’s progress though their education years, they can also be part of a platform for building a larger and stronger system of learning, and as such fill an invaluable role for national and regional development.

An example we would like to highlight is the literacy and numeracy assessment held in the Pacific. The Pacific Island Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA) is an assessment focused on ensuring that education policy in the region is being developed using the best possible data.

PILNA is a diagnosis tool for assessment managed by the Pacific Community (SPC), through the Educational Quality and Assessment Programme (EQAP), in 15 countries across the Pacific. In 2015, more than 45,000 fourth- and sixth-grade students from around 700 schools across 13 countries took part in the PILNA, making it the largest ever assessment the Pacific.

It has been three years since the last PILNA and preparations for the 2018 administration are already underway. As the scheduled October assessment dates approach, the SPC – EQAP team and National Coordinators of the 15 countries are ironing out administrative processes before the rollout.

Countries taking part in PILNA vary in size and geographic landscape. Some countries have as many as 120 schools taking part in the assessment, some others a mere three.

A relatively small country like Nauru has about 1,800 students taking PILNA. To put the varying sizes and systems involved in perspective, Mrs. Moevao Aleta of Tokelau highlighted that in comparison to Nauru, the total population of Tokelau is approximately 1,600, students included.

Mrs. Aleta has been in the teaching profession for 30 years now, teaching at the early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary levels in Tokelau, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia. In her experience, Tokelauan students do very well at home but do not fare as well once they enter university. Mrs. Aleta emphasizes that being part of PILNA is a way for countries to gauge how their students perform on a regional level and what they can do to improve their performance.

She explained how the Literacy and Numeracy workshops in preparation for PILNA 2018 have taught her new concepts in assessment data analysis including how students’ performances are captured on an item map and how to read the statistics in terms of the distribution of students on that scale. She also learned about the correlation of items to each other and then engaged in analyzing why certain students may be performing better than others and vice versa. The workshops provided training for curriculum officers who may not have had prior experiences in data analysis.

“These concepts presented on a national scale will be very useful for teachers to apply at the classroom level,” said Mrs Aleta, further adding that she really appreciates the quality, time and effort put into the item preparation and the logistics involved in sending the assessment materials into remote countries like Tokelau, on ships that come in and out of the country once every three weeks.

In the case of the Cook Islands, Jane Taurarii, Ministry of Education Advisor, stated her country used PILNA as a way of developing a framework for writing skills. Students needed improvement in writing good stories in different genres; Cook Islands officials had suspected that, and it  was confirmed by PILNA 2012. Following this interventions were made that, in turn, yielded improvement in PILNA 2015.

Ms. Taurarii explained how PILNA had helped them setting up a reading comprehension framework whereby they review the skills that their students have acquired. The framework was tested and implemented in 2015 and those pioneering students are now in Year 4, in time for PILNA 2018.

PILNA results have even informed the professional development of staff such as the training on writing. “What we need now, is to have a professional development session with the teachers who will supervise the students in the PILNA and how they need to encourage on students to attempt questions so we can measure where they are,” said Mrs. Taurarii.

She said this in light of the fact that PILNA uses a coding system that goes beyond looking for correct and incorrect answers but considers the range of possible answers. These ratings will then give a more in-depth explanation of students’ answers in terms of the specific aspect of the literary or numeric notion being assessed.

Overall, although PILNA is an assessment for year 4 and year 6 students the impact that it has on teachers and the education system is far-reaching. The effects of PILNA are pivotal in fostering the quality of education not only in the participating countries but also in the region. More than an instrument or tool, it has become a generator of data; critical education data that informs governments’ policy directions in the continuum of learning.

Anxiety over testing will always be a part of school life. But at least when it comes to PILNA, students should feel some comfort knowing that the assessments they undergo today will contribute to a better system tomorrow, for themselves and for the coming generations.

Solo Matthewsella, SPC Communications Assistant at EQAP, [email protected]

Educational Quality and Assessment


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Educational Quality and Assessment
Educational Quality and Assessment Programme (EQAP)