Press release

UNESCO warns of a lack of progress in basic learning achievements since 2013 in Latin America and the Caribbean

Data from UNESCO’s new ERCE 2019 reveals that in 16 countries in the region, an average of 40% of third grade students and 60% of sixth graders have not acquired basic competencies in reading and math. 
In addition, the study found that in most countries, there has not been significant progress in learning achievements among primary education students between 2013 and 2019. Some countries have seen reversals. 

Latin America and the Caribbean face an educational crisis; progress in basic learning achievements and the effective right to education continues to be pending tasks. Achievement levels are still deficient, and in the majority of countries improvement over time is not apparent. 

These are the findings of the Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (ERCE), published on 30 November by UNESCO by the Regional Office for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC/UNESCO Santiago) with representatives of the 16 participating countries: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.

The data illustrates the urgency of mobilizing efforts to improve achievement levels among third and sixth-grade students in Latin America and the Caribbean, as a high proportion are falling behind. Among third-grade readers, 44,3% are in the lowest level of ability in reading; in math this figure reaches 47.7%. At sixth grade level, 23.3% of students are in the lowest achievement levels, as are 49.2% in math and 37.7% in sciences.

The study reveals that third-grade students in the lowest level of reading achievement cannot locate information in a text unless it appears very prominently. Nor can they made inferences that require a comprehensive understanding of the text, even when information is repeated or highlighted in such a way that facilitates its identification. Sixth-grade students are unable to infer information when doing so would require a broad understanding, nor are they able to connect secondary or specific ideas presented in different parts of the text. 

In mathematics, third grade students at the lowest performance level are not able to write natural numbers up to 9.999 or carry out polynomial factorization.  Sixth-graders at this level are unable to resolve problems that require the interpretation of information or those that involve more than one operation including multiplication or division.  

Learning outcomes

ERCE 2019 is the fourth study conducted by UNESCO’s Latin American Laboratory for the Evaluation of the Quality of Education (LLECE), established in 1995. In the most recent version of the study, more than 160.000 girls and boys in the third and sixth grades participated in the study. The study measured their performance in reading, writing, math and sciences. In addition to the tests themselves, students, teachers, directors and parents completed questionnaires about the context in which learning outcomes were developed. For the first time, a module focused on socioemotional skills was applied, the results of which will be presented on 16 December 2021. 

Data from UNESCO’ study show that low achievement levels in the region persist in the region and that  on average, there has not been significant progress since the last evaluation in 2013. Countries with statistically significant increases in scores in all evaluated areas and at both levels include Peru, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. Of these, Peru and Brazil reported the most significant progress. 

“The ERCE studies show us that just before the pandemic, on average the region was practically stagnating at low achievement levels in areas and competencies that form the foundations of future learning. This speaks to an entire generation at risk of not being able to develop its full potential. For this reason, educational measures and reforms to improve learning outcomes from the first levels of schooling cannot wait, and must be prioritized,” explained Claudia Uribe, Director of the Regional Office for Education for Latin America (OREALC/UNESCO Santiago). She added, “This is even more urgent in the context of the pandemic, as millions of children and young people have not been able to attend school for months. We know that this has delayed learning even further, and for the most disadvantaged groups, the gaps are widening. 

LLECE emphasizes the importance of mobilizing and prioritizing support for students who are falling behind in their learning outcomes. Among third graders, 4 of every 10 students are in the lowest achievement level, a serious warning given the predictive value of this indicator for future academic performance. LLECE’s coordinator, Carlos Henriquez, highlighted the “critical situation of learning outcomes in math in both levels, as more than half of students are in the lowest achievement levels (Levels I and II). The study also shows that in the case of sciences, approximately 1 in 3 sixth graders are in the lowest performance levels. In terms of gender differences, five countries still report persistent gender gaps in favor of boys in mathematics.  Girls tend to obtain better scores in reading.  In sciences, 7 of the 16 participating countries reported gender differences in scores in favor of girls. 

Associated Factors

The ERCE 2019 results also provide information about certain factors associated with learning outcomes. Among these is a positive association between these outcomes and pre-school attendance.  In the participating countries, more than 80% of evaluated students attended this level of schooling, and the  study found an average difference of 28 points between those who attended pre-school and those who did not, but with differences among the countries. 

UNESCO also highlighted the importance of certain characteristics of schools to explain student performance. Between 40% and 50% of the differences in achievement levels among students can be explained by features of the schools they attend.  In other words, quality learning opportunities are associated with characteristics of schools, and there are many differences among them. The study also showed that higher socioeconomic levels are associated with higher scores, an indicator that schools are not fulfilling the role of equalizing opportunities. OREALC/UNESCO Santiago also warns of systematic disadvantages that indigenous students face with regard to their performance.  In this study, gaps associated with ethnicity were associated with differences of up to 100 points.   

Class attendance was also associated with higher performance. UNESCO’s study showed that students with less frequent attendance achieved lower levels than those who attended regularly. Regardless of socioeconomic level, students who dedicate a day or more of study outside school hours obtain higher results than their peers. ERCE 2019 also shows that the frequency with which parents participate with their children in learning-related activities, and the high expectations that they have about the future of their children’s education, are associated with better learning achievements. 

In terms of teaching practices, the study found that better organization of teaching and supportive practices in the classroom are associated with higher learning levels.  Teachers who show more interest in the overall wellbeing of their students, those who organize and prepare classes, and those who support students’ learning by encouraging them to persevere and providing timely feedback are associated with better test results.  This finding illustrates the importance of strengthening teacher policies as a key element in the improvement of learning outcomes in all countries in the region. 

The Director of the UNESCO Regional Office for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean highlighted that the ERCE 2019 results allow for monitoring of progress towards quality education over the past six years, prior to the pandemic. These results are crucial to assess the stage in which the foundations of development and consolidation of basic competencies are being established for further learning. 

“We need to focus our attention on basic learning outcomes and have a plan to strengthen them. This is the only way our region can make progress in guarantee children’s right to education, leaving no one behind. We invite countries to join UNESCO in developing a  urgent, decisive agenda to ensure that all boys and girls in our region to acquire the basic skills they need to continue learning.