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International study ranks Kenyan grade two and threes last in literacy levels

 The assesment was conducted last year in only one district in each of the 13 countries (Shutterstock)

Only 4.5 per cent of learners in Mwala, Machakos County, can meet the international numeracy criteria for grades two and three in primary school, research shows.

This is according to findings of the International Common Assessment of Numeracy (ICAN) report released on Thursday by Sara Ruto, Chief Executive Officer of People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network and a board member of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD).

ICAN 2020 was conducted last year in only one district in each of the 13 countries where it was done. The regions are Kenya, Bangladesh, India, Mali, Mexico, Mozambique, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda.

“We release the ICAN Report at a unique moment in history. Many school systems have been paralysed due to the effects of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19),” said Ms Ruto.


She said while some households, schools and countries have been able to re-organise themselves, the usual regions and populations remain shut out of the remote and blended learning options.

“It is a stark reminder of how inequitable society is,” Ruto said.

According to the report, Kenya is the last on the list when it comes to children in grade two and three who can do a set of foundational numeracy tasks, aligned to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.1.1 (a). The indicator measures the percentage of children in primary education and at the end of secondary education reaching at least a minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics.

The tasks include counting, comparing number of objects, number recognition, operations that have and don’t have carry-over, borrow and remainder and real world problems.

Other tasks include geometry on position and direction, shapes and figures, measurement on length and capacity, time and calendar and data display on retrieving simple information.

In grades two and three, Kenya is beaten by its neighbours Tanzania with a score of 53 per cent and Uganda with 56.8 per cent, the highest score among the 13 countries. The survey reached a total of 60 randomly selected rural communities, 1,200 households and assessed 1,140 children in the age group of five to 16 years.

Although researchers said the sample is representative of Mwala sub-county only, interestingly, the mean numeracy score for children aged 6-16 years in Mwala is 56.3 per cent as compared to the national score of 56.2 per cent, according to the 2015 Uwezo Kenya assessment.

The survey shows 36.6 per cent of learners in classes 4, 5 and 6 can do foundational numeracy tasks aligned to the SGD 4.1.1 indicator. Again here, Kenya falls behind Tanzania, which has a score of 72.4 per cent, and Uganda which leads the 13 countries with 81.4 per cent. In this group, only India (77.3 per cent), Pakistan (76.4 per cent) and Nepal (80.4 per cent) achieved the 75 per cent pass mark. Kenya was only able to beat Mali which had 29.8 per cent.

The evidence we have shows children around the world are not learning enough to improve their own and their countries’’ and communities’ lives.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), which I lead, has estimated that 674 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels (MPLs) in reading and mathematics,” said Sylvia Montoya, Director, UIS.

It has been 20 years since the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) called for universal primary education. This survey was conducted to establish the status in the world today.

The survey shows that over 95 per cent of children in the age group of 6-10 years are enrolled in some type of school in most locations except Kenya, Mali, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It shows that in Mwala, almost 50 per cent of children in this age group are out of school. The proportion is also large in Bangladesh with over 35 per cent and in and Mali with over 30 per cent.

The survey shows that 44.5 per cent of children in Mwala in this age group are enrolled in government schools, 3.9 per cent in private and 48.9 per cent, not enrolled in any school at all.

The report shows that children in class 4, 5 and 6 exhibit different numeracy levels based on the household’s affluence status. In Mwala, 33.6 per cent of the children in these three classes from less wealthy families can do foundational numeracy work assigned to them, compared to 40 per cent from affluent families.

In Tanzania, 69.4 per cent from less affluent families can do the work compared to 75.2 per cent from rich families. In Uganda, 79.8 per cent from less affluent families can do foundational assignments compared to 83.5 per cent from rich families.

In the age distribution of children in grade three, Mwala had 57.8 per cent of learners aged above nine, 19.1 per cent aged nine, 18.4 per cent aged seven and four per cent aged below seven.

Among the 13 countries, only Pakistan had a higher number than Kenya with 74.2 per cent of its learners in grade three aged above nine. Uganda has 29.7 per cent aged above nine in grade three while Tanzania has 34.7 per cent. Both countries have 40.5 per cent of their children aged nine years in grade three.

The ICAN report is a product of South-South collaboration among 13 PAL Network member organisations drawn from 13 countries globally. Available in 11 languages, ICAN is an open-source, robust and easy-to-use assessment tool that offers international comparability of results aligned to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.1.1 (a).

Foundational learning

Montoya said foundational learning is extremely important, since by definition, it lays the foundation for everything else. “It also is a fertile area for improvement, because the techniques for improving foundational skills are better known than the techniques for improving learning in, say, secondary schools in more qualitative subjects such as history or social studies,” she said.

She said the issue of foundational learning is particularly important today amid the Covid-19 crisis.

“Foundational skills are known to be the easiest to lose when schooling is interrupted, as is evident from studies of learning loss during vacations. They are also the hardest to regain once schooling re-starts,” Montoya said.


[The Writer is a 2019/2020 Bertha Fellow]

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