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Map of languages of the Philippines

What is the regional learning achievement data from SEA-PLM 2019 telling us on the quality of primary education in the Philippines ?

By JD, correspondent of MeridiE in the Philippines

This article is the country profile of the Philippines using the regional learning assessment program SEA-PLM.

What is SEA-PLM ?

South East Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM) was developed and designed by and for countries in Southeast Asia which aims to monitor the learning outcomes of grade 5 pupils in Reading, Writing, Mathematics and Global Citizenship. It is a valid, reliable and comparable source of information on learning and teaching conditions and learning achievement.

SEA-PLM 2019 is the first round of this regional assessment conducted and supported by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Association (SEAMEO) with technical assistance from the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER). Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines and Vietnam participated in this regional assessment.  There are all lower middle income countries except Malaysia (upper middle).

The SEA-PLM 2019 participating countries share key priorities for developing their education systems but also have quite different historical, political, economic and social landscapes. Context-specific factors shape the development of national education systems and the individual path and performance of children from early grades to higher levels of education.

Progress in primary education in South East Asia

In the past 20 years, SEA-PLM countries have progressed significantly in meeting the demand for primary education and expanding school coverage[1]. Even if countries are close to achieving universal access to primary education, challenges remain in reducing access disparities between children, increasing achievement for all, improving transition and achievement in secondary education, and providing at least 1 year of preschool for all children. Meeting these targets and other national priorities is critical to achieving good learning outcomes for all.

When interpreting findings on children’s performance and learning outcomes, it is also important to reflect on some basic characteristics of education systems. The structure of basic education, the length of compulsory education and the school year, the coverage of preschool learning, and the language of instruction are all important variables that shape the design, implementation and achievement of curriculum targets in each country.

In terms of human capital, Philippines holds an average position among ASEAN countries.

The state of human capital in ASEAN countries, world Bank Data

Source :

Data on education the Philippines

The Philippines has a population of 106.6 Million (as of 2019), the average population aged 0-14 years old is at 31 Million (as of 2018). The country is on its way from a lower middle-income country to an upper middle-income country with a gross national income per capita of 3,214.8 (US$ PPP) as of 2018. The net enrolment rate at pre-primary level is at 64.5, net enrolment rate at primary level is at 94.2, and net enrolment rate at secondary level is at 76.0. That means that Philippines is also close to meet universal primary enrolment.

In the Philippines the age requirement for pre-primary is 5 years old and the duration is in 1 year. The length of primary is for 6 years at age from 6 to 11 years old. Length of lower secondary is at 4 years at the age of 12 to 15 years old. And the length of upper secondary education is 2 years at the age of 16 to 17 years old. That’s a total of 13 years compulsory years in school.

The structure of the education system in the Philippines

Source: UNESCO-UIS database consulted in 2020, data as officially reported by countries

Sampled children in Grade 5 were tested, regardless of their age and previous experience before and after entering primary school, the children in the Philippines were tested 1 year before the end of primary school.

Languages of instruction in reading and mathematics at primary level

The Philippines has approximately more than 170 languages and dialects.

Map of languages of the Philippines

Source :

Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) is quite a challenge in the Philippines. Currently, there are 19 languages considered by DepEd in its MTB-MLE implementation. It is required to use Mother Tongue in grades 1 to 3 and Filipino and English is used in grades 4 to 6.By grade 5, children in all participating countries should already have transitioned (as applicable) to the country’s primary language(s) of instruction for reading, writing and mathematics. Each participating country specified its test language(s) for SEA-PLM 2019, based on the official national language policy at Grade 5.

Reading proficiency

The 10% of children who performed at Band 6 and above demonstrated that they were proficient in understanding, using and responding to texts with familiar structures. They demonstrated skills that are consistent with the definition of reading literacy in the SEA-PLM 2019 assessment framework.

Philippines’ Percentage of Grade 5 children in each reading level/band

Source : author calculation from SEA-PLM data (2019)

The chart shows that reading proficiency in the Philippines has small to modest percentages of Grade 5 children who had achieved understanding texts with familiar structures and manage competing information (Band 6 and above). Also a little share were progressing on making connections to understand key ideas (Band 5) towards achieving the expected levels of reading proficiency at the end of primary education. The proficiency in reading will determine if a student has mastered age/grade level expectations.

Also, SEA-PLM 2019 reading proficiency measures can be used to report against the Sustainable Development Goals or SDG education target (SDG 4.1) through their alignment with indicator  SDG 4.1.1b. The SDG 4.1.1a indicator defines minimum proficiency in reading for ‘end of lower primary’ as: “Students read aloud and comprehend many single written words, particularly familiar ones, and extract explicit information from sentences. They make simple inferences when longer texts are read aloud to them.” (Expanded definition, GAML, 2019, p. 12).

Writing proficiency

Percentage of Grade 5 children in each writing level/band

Source : author calculation from SEA-PLM data (2019)

In terms of writing  only 1% of grade 5 learners in the Philippines achieved “higher levels” of proficiency, or those who met the highest level in the standards used by the study. These learners are those with the ability to “write cohesive texts with detailed ideas and a good range of appropriate vocabulary.” Almost half or 45% of Grade 5 learners in the Philippines were in the lowest band, which means they have “limited ability to present ideas in writing.” That’s the domain were Filipino pupils perform the less.

Children’s proficiency in writing varied greatly across the 6 SEA-PLM 2019 countries. Some had significant proportions of children in Bands 7 and 8 and above, while others had a significant proportion of children in the lowest.

Mathematical proficiency

Philippines’ Grade 5 pupils showed that a few or 1 percent of Grade 5 children have a Mathematical proficiency expected in the first years of primary school and a modest percentage of grade 5 pupils who have achieved the Mathematical literacy skills expected at the end of primary skill. The results showed that the pupils appeared to be more familiar with making calculations than with formulating, interpreting, communicating and explaining.

Percentage of Grade 5 children in each Mathematics band

Source : author calculation from SEA-PLM data (2019)

Gender differences in average reading, mathematics and writing scores by gender

 On average, girls were significantly more likely to have higher levels of achievement in both reading and writing literacy, a pattern that was evident in all SEA-PLM 2019 countries. In the Philippines, girls had higher levels of mathematical literacy than boy. National averages showing that girls outperform boys at grade 5 in reading and writing literacy are consistent with findings in other comparative large-scale assessments implemented in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, including the Progress in Reading Literacy Survey (PIRLS) and the Pacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA), in which some SEA-PLM 2019 countries also participated (Mullis, Martin, Foy & Hooper, 2017;  EQAP 2019).

Despite the difference in performance, in all countries, few to large proportion of girls and boys still have difficulties in reaching the expected levels of performance across the domains. In relation to Sustainable Development Goal 4 – Education 2030 (SDG 4) for reading and mathematics, there were more girls than boys at or above SDG 4.1.1b in all countries Equity related to gender at Grade 5 should be further analyzed by taking into account other aspects of gender issues, such as access, dropout rates, stereotypes, higher education and employment.

Differences in average reading, writing and mathematics scores by preschool attendance

In reading, writing and mathematics, children who had attended preschool had, on average, higher scores compared with those who had not attended. Although the influence of preschool attendance on achievement is expected to attenuate over time, this finding shows that a large positive effect still exists even 5 years into schooling across all countries and domains. This emphasizes the disadvantage for those children who are unable to attend preschool. This finding questions the system’s capacity to provide at least 1 year of free and compulsory pre-primary education for all children prior to entrance into basic education, and highlights the need for an alternative strategy to support home and community-based early childhood education.

Percentage of children by whether the language of instruction is spoken at home

Across 5 of the 6 participating countries, on average in all domains, children who reported that the language of instruction (also the language of the test) was the same as the language spoken at home outperformed children who spoke a different language at home. Higher differences were observed for writing literacy in generally lower-performing countries, with scores increasing by 10 to 20 points when the language spoken at home was the same as the language of instruction.

The Philippines included the use of native languages in the basic education system. This is to further have the children to be more comfortable and understand instructions better and have a more active participation in the learning process. This makes education in the Philippines more inclusive and committed to cultural and linguistic diversity.

A further blog will discuss the language issue in the Philippines further.

[1] Source: ASEAN key figures (ASEAN, 2019) except pre-primary level rate (UNESCO-UIS), consulted in 2020.

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