Policymakers in the education systems of Latin America are bracing themselves for what they expect will be unwelcome news. Following the devastating impact on schooling of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are looking ahead with some trepidation to the results from the latest round of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that will be released at the end of this year. The Latin American countries will be keen to see how their 15-year-old students perform on the PISA 2022 test of reading, mathematics, and science compared to the students who participated in PISA 2018, the last time the assessment was carried out. However, data from the OECD’s earlier PISA for Development (PISA-D) initiative that looked at the levels of learning amongst out-of-school youth in four countries of the region suggests that the learning losses in the region might not be as catastrophic as some are predicting, partly because schools were not providing effective opportunities for learning even when they were open.
According to last year’s joint report on the educational impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic by OECD, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank ‘Two Years After: Saving a Generation’, children in Latin America and the Caribbean experienced some of the longest and uninterrupted COVID-19 school closures in the world. On average, students in the region lost, fully or partially, two-thirds of all in-person school days since the start of the pandemic. As a consequence, the IDB has documented reductions of up to 50% of time devoted to study. In effect, the region’s secondary school students became out-of-school youth for this period.
It is expected that the loss of so many school days in Latin America during the pandemic will have a devastating impact on learning, with some estimating the loss of 1.5 years of learning since the pandemic hit. One of the first opportunities to gauge how much learning has actually been lost will come in December 2023, when the results of the OECD’s PISA 2022 will be released. But the PISA-D data on the out-of-school youth already provides some clues as to what the picture might look like.
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Early results from PISA-D
The PISA for Development program aims to encourage and facilitate PISA participation by low- and middle-income countries. The PISA-D results showed that 15-year-old students enrolled in the PISA target grades (on average, about half of the 15-year-old populations in the four participating countries: Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and Paraguay) outperformed the youth included in the out-of-school assessment. On average, across the four Latin American countries, less than 2% of out-of-school youth (roughly half of the 14-16-year-old population) achieved minimum levels of proficiency in reading (Level 2 in PISA), compared to almost 30% of in-school youth. So, schooling does matter when it comes to reading, and there is no hidden wealth of literacy among the out-of-school youth. Equally, the difference in performance between the in-school and the out-of-school is not as wide as you might expect: 70% of in-school students across the four countries failed to achieve at least minimum levels of proficiency in common with 98% of the out-of-school youth.
In mathematics, the difference in performance between the in-school and the out-of-school was not very wide at all, with 99% of out-of-school youth failing to achieve Level 2 in this domain (the minimum level of proficiency), in common with 88% of in-school youth, on average.
While the highest performers in reading amongst the out-of-school youth were those who had attended school for a longer period, in mathematics, there was very little difference in performance between students with long school attendance records and those who had attended for a short period. Of course, this is inferring impacts from simple correlations, and there may be other explanations, beyond the length of school attendance, for the difference in performance on reading. It is also important to remember that the PISA tests do not focus on curricular knowledge but on the use of knowledge and skills in real-life contexts. Also worth noting is that the dropouts covered in the PISA-D out-of-school assessment are not comparable (in terms of prior levels of skills) to the more skilled COVID-19-induced dropouts of 2020-2021 that have since returned to school after they re-opened. And, of course, the four Latin American countries in PISA-D may not be typical of all the countries in the region.
Good or bad news?
These caveats notwithstanding, the PISA-D results suggest that the differences in scores between PISA 2018 and PISA 2022 in Latin America may not be as wide as many are expecting, especially in mathematics. But if this turns out to be the case, it would hardly be good news for the ministries of education in the Latin American region for three main reasons:
- First, the students represented by the PISA 2022 sample may be more selective compared to PISA 2018 if dropout has increased following the COVID-19 school closures – this would need to be confirmed through analysis of the data on PISA coverage;
- Second, such results would reinforce the findings of previous rounds of PISA and PISA-D that schooling is not equating to learning for the majority of students in the region; and
- Third, such results would show that the current focus on recovering any learning lost due to the school closures would be inadequate for the greater and pre-existing need to accelerate learning so that a greater proportion of Latin American students achieve at least minimum levels of proficiency in reading, mathematics, and science than previously.
Keep up to date with the information and results of PISA in Latin America here.