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Too many school children failing literacy and numeracy test in Tanzania

Countries in East Africa have made significant improvements in extending access to primary schooling, but a new study suggests many children are not learning the core skills expected from primary education.

Today, more than 90% of all eligible children in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are enrolled in primary school. However, a report by Uwezo, an independent initiative in East Africa which promotes access to information and improved services for citizens, reveals that the quality of learning through primary schooling is often so low, that two out of every three pupils fail basic tests in literacy and numeracy. 

Around 350,000 children were tested in a 2011 survey conducted across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The children were assessed for their ability to perform basic numeracy and literacy tasks at the Standard 2 level – this represents the basic competencies in literacy and numeracy expected from children once they’ve completed two years of primary education. Fewer than one in three pupils passed these tests in Kiswahili and numeracy, with only one in six passing the test in English. And only 15% of all pupils were able to pass all three tests combined.

While scores were generally low, there were significant differences between districts within the countries. For example, in Tanzania, children in the best performing district achieved an average combined test pass rate of 80%. This compared with just 25% in the worst performing district, a huge difference of 55 percentage points. The difference in performance between pupils at non-government (private) schools and those at state (public) schools was also particularly marked in Tanzania.

From the evidence of the survey, the writers of the report, ‘Are our children learning?’, express their concern that primary school children are generally only acquiring the skills they need very slowly and in many cases, take five or more years to achieve the standard of learning expected, instead of just two. It is also common that children from poorer households perform worse in the tests, suggesting that inequality in educational opportunity persists. To solve these problems, Uwezo suggests more research into the determinants of learning outcomes and a new focus on measuring learning outcomes, rather than simply counting physical resources such as classrooms, desks and books. While more resources may still be useful, the authors wonder if it isn’t time to try innovative approaches such as offering ‘cash on delivery’ of results.

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