A Long Way to the Assessment of 21st Century Skills in Africa by Purity Ngina 

In 1982, the Association for Educational Assessment in Africa (AEAA) was founded with the vision of harmonizing Educational Assessment in the continent. In August 2022, AEAA hosted its 38th annual conference in Livingstone, Zambia, to discuss the progress made in education assessments and to find solutions to the challenges facing examinations. Themed “Education Assessments for Developing 21st-Century Skills”, the conference was attended by over 400 delegates from all corners of the world. The theme cut across seven sub-themes which included current trends and challenges in aligning and integrating 21st century competences, among them teaching and learning, formative and summative assessments, use of assessment feedback, assessing learners with special needs, assessment beyond the classroom, technology application in assessment and assessment in emergency contexts.

Notable from the presentations, the assessment of 21st-century skills presents unprecedented challenges. The assessment tools presented included mostly self-rating tools for use by learners and teachers. It was observed that such tools face two major limitations. One, they yield mostly biased and low-reliability data, and two, they hardly exhaust the skill structure in measurement. For instance, collaboration as a skill has many dimensions including communication, planning, working together and negotiation. For one to conclude that a person has high or low collaboration, at least most of these would need to be assessed, and this is hard to achieve in self-rating scales.

Deepening the understanding on the assessment of 21st century skills, the keynote speaker, Prof. Sarah Howen, walked the participants through various approaches to skill definition and measurement. She picked on the PISA socio-emotional learning assessment framework. Singling out collaborative problem solving as an example (Table 1), she underscored the need to contextualize definitions and measurement for Africa.

Visibly, the presented assessments metrics during the conference had limited depth both in understanding and defining 21st century competences in context. Hardly were any skill structures presented, and the assessment results shared were based on generic or ad hoc tools quickly developed by researchers.

Another perspective strongly shared was on the effect of high-stake national Examinations on classroom instruction. Prof. David Mwanza, also a keynote speaker, used case studies on Kenya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Zambia and Botswana to illustrate the washback effect. The findings revealed visible stifling of curriculum delivery by examinations. In Pakistan, for instance, 52% of the questions in Grade 10 English papers were repeated every year, of which 50% were repeated with no change[1]. In a similar trend, 51% of teachers in Kenya[2] reported encouraging their students to memorize because the exam questions could be predicted. In Zambia, using a case on History, examination questions over the last decade mainly covered only 11 out of the 47 topics. Generally, the minimalist and predictable trend of setting exam questions led to a mini-syllabus developed by the teachers – teaching what is likely to be examined and ignoring the rest.

A third perspective was the tension in teacher assessments. The third keynote speaker, Prof. Nicky Roberts, shared the process carried out in South Africa where primary school teachers are assessed on English and Mathematics during the first year of joining college, and replicating the assessment after four years of training. The assessment basically carried test items drawn from what they were expected to go and teach in these two subjects. The findings showed that after four years, the progress rate was just about 4% [3]. These results raised two concerns. First, the content competence among teachers, that is, can teachers really pass in what we expect them to teach? Second was the assessment, that is, how would we succeed in assessing teachers within the workforce without raising fears and tension?

A fourth perspective shared was on the wide obsession with high-stake examinations as Africa’s brand. The presentation by Dr. Silvia Montoya revealed that over 60% of the high-stake exams globally are found in Africa. She presented this as ironic, that where we have high-stake exams is also where learning poverty was highest. She challenged the participants to reflect on the contribution of these examinations to learning.  Linking to the backwash analogy by Prof. Mwanza, it emerged clearly that while the norm-referenced, high-stake exams may have been useful in low-resourced contexts to determine placement in secondary and tertiary learning institutions, these examinations may have outlived their purpose in the 21st century.

Flying back home, the findings shared in the AEAA conference filled me with optimism and pessimism in equal measure. On the positive, the conference demonstrated the robust convening power of the examinations and assessment councils of the African states. Where people meet, ideas are explored and learning happens. Secondly, the delegates received even the strongest-hitting evidence with warm embrace, pointing to thirst for change and improvement. On the flipside, the room was full of public officers and only a trace of academia, painting a picture of officers who both assess children, assess themselves, and come to tell their stories to each other. In addition, while at least 60% of the papers mentioned 21st century skills somewhere (to align to the theme), hardly any contextualized assessment tools, methods and results were shared, revealing how far we have to go in developing this area and in integrating these in national assessments.

My mind wandered quickly to the Assessment of Life Skills and Values in East Africa (ALiVE) being conducted in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. In my imagination, the keynote speaker was presenting the skills framework for problem solving, collaboration and self-awareness. She presented the results of the ground-up contextualization studies conducted with adolescents, then the assessment framework, then the lengthy process of learning how to develop assessments in context, then went on to present the findings of the ALiVE household-based assessment of 50,000 adolescents. The speaker strongly suggested vehemently a framework of collaboration to develop assessments of 21st century skills across the African continent that is government-led, and that involves researchers and assessment experts in university and civil society. Everyone in the room stood up, then, the rapturous applause woke me up, and I heard that we had landed in Nairobi.


[1] , I. A., & Mari, M. A. (2019). Analysing the impact of external examination on teaching and learning of English at the secondary level education. Cogent Education, 6(1), 1574947. https://doi.org/10.1080/2331186X.2019.1574947

[2] Wachiuri, R. N., Kimathi, J. N., & Nonglait, B. S. L. (2017). Comparative Analysis of Teacher Education in Kenya, Somalia, and Finland-A Review. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 22, 23–25.

[3] Fonseca, K., Maseko, J., & Roberts, N. (2018). Students mathematical knowledge in a bachelor of Education (Foundation or intermediate phase) programme. Govender, R. & Junqueira, K.(2018) Proceedings of the 24th Annual National Congress of the Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa, 124–139


Dr. Purity Ngina is the Evidence Manager at Zizi Afrique Foundation, For feedback, send an email to info@ziziafrique.org

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