Smaller, quicker, cheaper: alternative literacy assessment strategies in the UN Literacy Decade

Wagner, Daniel A.
Date of publication: 
Wed, 2003-01-01


In the context of the UN Literacy Decade (declared in February 2003), the present paper

suggests three parameters that should be considered when new tools for assessment are

considered in less developed countries (LDCs), each of which poses a special challenge to

international comparative literacy assessment, such as in the International Adult Literacy

Survey (IALS):

* Smaller: Assessment methods do not need to be major entrepreneurial enterprises, but

rather just robust enough to answer key policy questions at the national and local levels.

International comparative studies often run counter to this perspective.

* Quicker: Literacy assessments need to be completed in ‘real time’ so that results can affect

policy and spending in the ‘lifetime’ of current ministerial appointments. Studies that take

3–5 years to generate results, even if robust, nonetheless fail to meet the test of timeliness.

* Cheaper: LDCs cannot afford either the fiscal or human resources costs of deep

involvement in highly technical assessment exercises. The higher the cost, the more

difficult to get to an initial ‘yes’ to participate in such an exercise, and the more difficult to

gather time-series data to follow policy decisions.

In sum, this paper finds that there is a very important need for improving literacy assessment

methodologies and the empirical database in developing countries, especially in light of the

new UN Literacy Decade. While the IALS presents interesting and important options for


methodological consideration, it also has a number of inherent limitations as discussed herein.

Other options exist which should also be considered, especially for poor countries, such as the

smaller/quicker/cheaper (SQC) approach.