How Brazil’s national assessment can support learning and equity goals

Teacher hands exam paper to student in lecture theatre

By Anna Vitoria Perico E Santos

Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

and Caitlyn Guthrie

Policy Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Brazil’s national assessment system is being reformed to better align with recent changes in the country’s education system.
– OECD analysis has identified three key considerations for reforming Brazil’s national assessment.
– Other countries can learn from Brazil’s experience to better leverage their own assessments to improve learning and reduce inequity.

As education systems evolve, governments must consider how national assessments might likewise need to be adapted to better advance national goals. This is the case in Brazil, where officials are currently exploring how to support major education reforms – namely a new competence-based curriculum and upper-secondary model – in the country’s longstanding Basic Education Assessment System (Sistema de Avaliação do Ensino Básico, SAEB). The COVID-19 pandemic is also shaping this discussion, reinforcing the critical role of national assessments in helping policy makers, schools and families collect information about how students are doing and direct resources to where they can have the greatest impact.

The OECD, with the support of the Lemann Foundation, has analysed some of the proposed changes to SAEB. The exercise will help inform the national debate on how national assessments can better balance their different monitoring, accountability and formative functions. Some of Brazil’s reform priorities and topics under discussion are especially relevant for other countries that wish to leverage their national assessment to help raise educational performance and reduce inequalities.

Aligning the national assessment with a competence-based curriculum

Brazil’s new National Common Curricular Base (Base Nacional Comum Curricular, BNCC) sets out the core competencies and knowledge that all students should acquire by the end of basic education. Having a valid and reliable national assessment that aligns with the BNCC’s competence-based approach can help Brazil monitor the implementation of its curriculum reform. Brazil has already started using the BNCC as the reference framework for new assessments in the SAEB system; however, there is a need to do this for all relevant subjects and levels of schooling measured by the national assessment.

The government will also need to draw on available expertise and allocate sufficient time and resources to ensure that test items measure the higher-order skills of the new curriculum. Australia offers a good example of how Brazil and other countries can collaborate with relevant actors to develop detailed assessment frameworks and increase links between the curriculum and national assessments.

Using national assessment results to improve teaching and learning

Historically, SAEB has primarily served as a system-monitoring tool but there is a growing desire for the assessment to do more to support teaching and learning. The current SAEB already provides information on learning outcomes for most students but its formative potential largely depends on when and how actors receive and use the results. While Brazil aims to reduce the time between when students take SAEB and when results are available, raising the formative value of the assessment system will require supporting the pedagogical work of teachers. For example, SAEB results can serve as a benchmark for classroom assessments and the test items can provide a means to familiarise teachers with new approaches to assessment.

Raising the formative value of the assessment system will require supporting the pedagogical work of teachers

Brazil will also need to tailor the results to different audiences so stakeholders can interpret student performance and understand the implications for their work. Chile offers a good model for how countries can adapt reporting structures of their national assessment results to support improvements in student outcomes. Such efforts can help identify and address learning gaps, especially in the early years, so that students who fall behind are not left behind.

Supporting system and school accountability functions

SAEB is an important part of Brazil’s National Education Quality Index (Índice de Desenvolvimento da Educação Básica), which has helped monitor the quality of school networks since 2007. The index uses SAEB results and information on students’ transitions to calculate a single score that serves as a high-profile accountability tool for schools and local governments. The design of this score however, has become a subject of debate, as important contextual factors are not included in its calculation. Colombia developed a similar quality index, using Brazil as a model, but adapted this to reflect educational equity.

As Brazil considers potential reforms to SAEB, it will need to address how national assessment data feeds into the quality index in a way that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the country’s diverse educational contexts. Doing so will be crucial as the government plans to use SAEB (through the index) as one of the metrics to help make funding allocations more equitable across school networks. 

Countries will continue needing to adapt their national assessment systems in light of changes in their education systems. The areas where Brazil has chosen to focus its reform efforts, if designed and implemented carefully, will make the next version of SAEB a more powerful tool helping to improve teaching and learning across the country.

Read more:

Photo: Shutterstock/Syda Productions