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Innovative tools help fill data gaps on skill development

28 Jan 2022
Innovative tools help fill data gaps on skill development

By Anna Alejo, Haogen Yao, Bassem Nasir, Rachel Cooper, Manuel Cardoso

In the midst of a global learning crisis, there is an urgent need to improve children’s basic literacy and numeracy skills. But preparing young people for further success at school, work and life will require more than these foundational skills: to thrive in the 21st century, they need to think critically, adapt to new technologies, collaborate with others and be equipped to navigate challenges. Children need to develop the full range of skills including foundational, transferable, digital, job-specific and entrepreneurial skills. This is in line with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on quality education, which calls for not just reading and math proficiency, but also an improvement in a wider set of skills to prepare children and youth to thrive in school, work and life.

To ensure a brighter future for all children, we must first understand where they are in developing this full range of skills. Our recent mapping of skills assessments, however, reveals an overall dearth of data on skill development. Less than a fifth of countries, most of which are high-income, have data on all five skill areas. Across age groups, there are relatively limited data on children of primary school age. Large-scale assessments tend to measure only a few select transferable skills, mostly for adolescents. Moreover, data typically represent students in school, leaving out children who are not in school—and for whom skills development levels may be far worse.

How do we fill these gaps? We present three examples of innovations to existing surveys and new tools that provide potential solutions.

First, to address the lack of data on primary school-age and out-of-school children, UNICEF has developed the Foundational Learning Skills module in the sixth round of the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS6). Although some international surveys have begun expanding their coverage of developing nations, low-income countries remain underrepresented and out-of-school children excluded. While the PISA for Development (PISA-D) includes an option to assess out-of-school 14- to 16-year-olds, learning disparities often begin much earlier in children’s lives. To help fill these gaps, the MICS Foundational Learning Skills module is the only household survey that captures basic reading and numeracy skills at Grades 2 and 3 for in- and out-of-school children aged 7-14 years, in line with SDG 4.1.1a on minimum proficiency in reading and math. Data from this module can help us better understand the magnitude of the learning crisis and ensure no child is left behind.

Activities measured in MICS Foundational Learning Skills module

Second, to support data on digital skills, UNICEF has updated the Mass Media and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) module as part of MICS6. The module collects data on the recent use of ICT skills in various computer-related activities among men and women aged 15 to 49 years, in line with SDG 4.4.1 on ICT skills. Data from this module can improve our understanding on the prevalence of digital skills, on which only a little over half of countries currently have data. Better insight into these skills can help inform how we support children and youth to become digitally literate, well-equipped to use digital learning solutions and prepared for the future of work in the digital economy.

Activities measured to assess ICT skills in MICS Mass Media and ICT module

Lastly, UNICEF has developed standardized approaches to measuring transferable skills. Within the regional Life Skills and Citizenship Education (LSCE) initiative in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, UNICEF and the World Bank have developed the LSCE Measurement Instrument which measures the life skills (or transferable skills) outlined in the LSCE Framework below. These life skills have been identified as the most essential skills to develop the knowledge, attitudes and behaviors to deal with everyday life and to succeed in school and work. The instrument is designed as a national large-scale assessment to measure life skills scores at Grade 7 (or ages 12-14). The instrument provides a standardized approach for measuring life skills and can be applied in every country in the MENA region, as it is not based on any national curricula. The instrument is currently available in English and Arabic, and UNICEF is actively working to adapt the instrument and to deploy it to other regions.

The MENA Life Skills and Citizenship Education framework

Additionally, UNICEF supported the development of the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM), designed specifically for countries in Southeast Asia. Along with assessing Grade 5 students’ proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics, SEA-PLM is the first large-scale assessment to measure global citizenship attitudes, values and behavior at the primary level. In SEA-PLM, global citizenship refers to the appreciation and understanding of the interconnectedness of all life, a definition formulated in collaboration with Southeast Asian countries and which explores skills such as critical thinking, empathy and collaboration.

Findings from the MENA LSCE Measurement Instrument and the SEA-PLM can provide insight into the levels and distribution of transferable skills across the school-age population, inform the nature and scope of interventions to foster teaching and learning of transferable skills, and help track the progress of policies and interventions designed to enhance these skills. These large-scale assessments are only one approach to measuring skills development, which varies depending on context and purpose. Aside from large-scale assessments, UNICEF also supports the development of formative assessments, which can help inform learner-centered teaching and learning in the classroom, and impact assessments, which focus on the effectiveness of particular interventions aimed at developing skills.

These innovative tools help fill data gaps towards more comprehensive skills assessments and developing the full range of skills, a goal of UNICEF’s Reimagine Education initiative. With more and better data, we can provide greater support – and a brighter future – for all children.


Anna Alejo is an education consultant and Haogen Yao, Bassem Nasir, Rachel Cooper and Manuel Cardoso are education specialists at UNICEF New York Headquarters.