Artwork by Alyssa Arizabal (


The upper primary years of Grades 4 to 6 are the years when students should be going a level up from the simple literacy and numeracy skills of the 3Rs (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic).

In reading, the level up is in comprehension: understanding what one is reading in more involved texts with story lines involving plots and subplots, protagonists and antagonists, opposing sides and differing points of view, and being able to read through these and distinguish what are different, what are the same, what are similar and understand what shades of meaning there might be in similar words, phrases, and sentences.  At this level, a child’s vocabulary should be expanding to thousands of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) and the basic rules of grammar are being strengthened with more advanced rules being learned.

In mathematics, it is going beyond the realm of arithmetic and the four operations to a world of relationships, degree, and comparison using numbers and symbols.  It is the level of education where a child is taught the disciplined thinking around the manipulation of mathematical ideas (I.e. sets, whole numbers, fractions, decimals, proportions) — a skill a child can use to describe the world and things around him or her.

This is the level where the higher order thinking skills are introduced and with these the world of problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity can start to be developed in a formal way.


To provide a measure of the level of learning, a new assessment test called the SEA-PLM (Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics) was developed by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) Secretariat and the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office (EAPRO).   

SEA-PLM aims to improve the region’s measurement of learning outcomes and the use of data and peer exchange on policies and practices to give an indication of the level of learning among children.  SEA-PLM’s ambitious agenda was designed to support countries’ efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 – Education 2030 (SDG 4), and in particular to track progress on foundational learning (SDG 4.1.1) and knowledge and skills related to global citizenship (SDG 4.7).

The program was launched in 2014 to measure learning outcomes for children enrolled in Grade 5 in six ASEAN countries – Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Viet Nam.  The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) was contracted for technical management of design, implementation, coordination, training and quality assurance, and contribution to the reporting of the main regional results of SEA-PLM 2019.

SEA-PLM is designed so that children’s achievement can be measured over time through subsequent cycles of assessments every third year.  In the context of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, this is particularly relevant as SEA-PLM 2019, the first year of this assessment undertaken pre-pandemic, provides an authentic baseline for children’s learning.  With this baseline, participating countries will be able to compare their own children’s learning levels before and after COVID-19.  (In subsequent years, the test data of subsequent cohorts of Grade 5 students doing distance learning in the face of extended school closures to face-to-face learning will give researchers and educators insights into the idea of learning loss.)


SEA-PLM 2019 collected children’s and schools’ responses through paper-pencil tests and questionnaires, conducted with a sample of children that was representative of the school population enrolled at Grade 5 in each country.   

Tests and questionnaires were administered in the official language(s) of instruction in Grade 5 in each participating country, as determined by the education ministry in each country.  In the case of the Philippines, this was in English.

Children’s proficiency in reading, writing and mathematical literacy was measured.

Scores in each country could be laid out on a continuum with a number of scores scoring above proficiency but differing in degree measured as how many degrees above the norm.  The proficiency level was likewise divided into multiple sub-levels reflecting high, medium and low proficiency.  For those performing below proficiency, the sub-levels reflected if students were one or more standard deviations below the average proficiency level. 

Describing children’s knowledge in a rigorous, measurable and comparable way is a key milestone in any international assessment.  The SEA-PLM 2019 methodology enabled the overall national performance of participating countries to be reported for 2 Sustainable Development Goal indicators in reading and mathematics: SDG 4.1.1a (end of lower primary) and SDG 4.1.1b (end of primary).

Each of the proficiency scales in Reading, Writing and Mathematics was presented in bands where the highest band reflect mastery of fundamental skills expected by the end of primary school.  These children are also more likely to engage well in other important Grade 5 curriculum content, including the development of skills commonly considered critical in the 21st century, such as communication, technology use, and critical thinking.  Seeing children in different bands would describe levels of learning.

The SEA-PLM report wrote:  “A more nuanced teaching and learning strategy at the national and school levels to ensure that teaching is targeted at the level of students’ abilities.   Teaching the Grade 5 curriculum to students who are yet to master the foundational skills of reading, writing and mathematics will do little to improve student learning outcomes.  Understanding that learning is a progression and that teaching must be targeted at the level of students’ abilities is central to understanding the results of SEA-PLM 2019.”


The scores of Grade 5 students in the Philippines were not good.  Filipino schoolchildren, for the most part, are reading at the lower end of the learning spectrum.

Less than a quarter of the students tested were reading at the level of proficiency.  10% of the students were assessed to be reading at Band 6, the highest band; 12 % at Band 5.

On the other hand, 22% were at Band 4, 29% at Band 3, and 27% at Band 2.  These last three bands were below proficiency. 

What do the bands mean in greater detail? 

In the SEA-PLM, Reading is measured in 6 bands.

Proficiency in Reading was described in Band 6 as children able to understand texts with familiar structures and manage competing information when locating ideas and details.  They are able to find multiple pieces of related information in texts with familiar structures and make connections between details and ideas to draw inferences.

In Band 5 – nearing proficiency – children are able to make connections to understand key ideas. 

Children are able to connect pieces of related information across sections of texts, including tables and diagrams, enabling them to understand key ideas.

In contrast, Bands 3 and lower reflected below proficiency.  While children are able to read a range of everyday texts, such as simple narratives and personal opinions, and begin to engage with their meaning,  It is at a level where there is minimal competing information, yet children at this level are typically able to make simple inferences from prominent information.

In Band 2 and below, children can only match 1 of 4 given words to an illustration of a familiar object, place or symbol, where the task is simple, direct and repetitive.  This demonstrates that children below Band 3 are able to identify the meaning of only some words.

There were six countries that were tested.  Malaysia and Vietnam were identified by the author (myself) as comparator countries because these two countries and the Philippines were the only ones that were middle-income or higher and therefore more comparable from an endowments perspective.

The majority of same age students in Malaysia and Vietnam, also in Grade 5, had achieved the reading literacy skills expected at the end of primary school (Band 6).   An additional 18% and 10% of children, respectively, were in Band 5  (nearing mastery).  These children were assessed to have developed solid skills in reading literacy skills in their language of instruction.

In Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and the Philippines, only a small to modest percentage of Grade 5 children had achieved Band 6 and above or were progressing (Band 5) towards achieving the expected levels of reading proficiency at the end of primary education.

The SEA-PLM noted that in some countries, Grade 5 is the end of primary school though this not the case in the Philippines.  If children do not meet a minimum proficiency in reading by Grade 5, they will likely struggle to transition to secondary school.  This is what is actually happening in the Philippines.  Schoolchildren reading below level in the upper primary years will have difficulty reading higher level material in high school and this is already being reflected in the TIMSS and PISA international assessment tests which will be written about in future essays.


Writing was even worse in the 2019 SEA-PLM for the Philippines. 

Arranged in 8 Bands of proficiency (or lack of proficiency), only 6% of Filipino schoolchildren tested were rated proficient in writing (1% at Band 8, 1% at Band 7, 4% at Band 6).   45% were at Band 1, the lowest level for writing, 12% were at Band 2, and 15% at Band 3.  That adds up to 72% not able to write at a proficient level at the end of the primary years.   

In Band 8, children can write cohesive texts with detailed ideas with a good range of appropriate vocabulary.  They can produce texts that draw on a wider-world context, with relevant, detailed and sometimes imaginative ideas.

In Band 7, children can write clear, detailed texts in various contexts with adequate vocabulary. 

Children can produce texts that relate to wider-world, local and personal contexts, expressing ideas that go beyond mere description to include some persuasive or evaluative aspects. 

In Band 6, children can write simple texts for a range of purposes.    

At the lower end of the spectrum in Band 3, children produce very limited writing, with simple, insufficient ideas and limited vocabulary.  They can produce simple or repetitive sentences that use repetition of pronouns or nouns to link ideas.   Basic vocabulary at this level is inadequate to convey a good description.

In Band 2, children produce very limited writing, with fragmented ideas and inadequate vocabulary.  Ideas can be unclear, irrelevant, limited or consist of fragments only.  They may be able to write 1 simple correct sentence or produce incomplete sentences or sentences containing many errors and inconsistent punctuation.   

In Band 1, children have a limited ability to present ideas in writing. 

In Viet Nam, by comparison, more than 30% of Grade 5 children were assessed to have writing skills as in Bands 7 and 8 and above.  These children were deemed to be able to transition well through to secondary education, and “may possibly be on the right track to meet the challenges of a 21st century skills based curriculum” (SEA-PLM report).

In Malaysia, almost 12% of Grade 5 children produced writing in the top 2 bands of writing proficiency.

The SEA-PLM report stated that in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and the Philippines, “a very limited number of Grade 5 children achieved higher levels of proficiency in writing…The highest performers of this group could produce very limited writing, with simple, insufficient ideas and limited vocabulary…The weakest students had only limited ability to present ideas in writing.”


Math proficiency was no better than writing.  6% of children were rated proficient of higher (1% Band 8, 5% Band 7).  65% were below proficient (24% Band 4, 23% Band 3, 18% Band 2).  (There were 9 bands for mathematics.)

In Band 9, children can reason about triangles to find an unknown side length using information about the perimeter, and they can solve problems using frequency distributions.

In Band 8, children can think multiplicatively and convert between units.  They can solve problems by adding fractions with the same denominator and by dividing a decimal number by a 1-digit number.  They can continue a pattern involving decimals.  

In Band 7, children can apply fractions and percentages and analyze data representations, calculate a percentages, and a simple fraction of a number.  They can identify the rotation of a design by half a turn and can find the missing value in a table using a given total and calculate a missing percentage value on a pie chart.

On the lower end of the scale, in Band 4, children can solve a problem but only those that do not involve conversion of units.

In Band 3, children can understand place value and scales of measurement but these are limited to 2-digit numbers, simple shapes and bar graphs.

In Band 2 and below, some children might be able to add single digit numbers together; others might only be able to count a small collection of objects or recognize numbers.

In Malaysia and Viet Nam, the majority of Grade 5 children had achieved the mathematical literacy skills expected at the end of primary school as indicated as Band 6 and above.  In these countries, “large numbers of children (were) on the right track to meet the challenges of a 21st century skills-based curriculum when they transition through to secondary education.”

In Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and the Philippines, only a modest percentage of Grade 5 children had achieved the mathematical literacy skills expected at the end of primary school or Band 6 and above.  This implied that the majority of Grade 5 children were still working towards mastering fundamental mathematical skills.

Children in all the countries tested and not just the Philippines appeared to be more familiar with making calculations than with formulating, interpreting, communicating and explaining these.  This is an area that needs to be addressed but this can only be done by more practice and a less cluttered curriculum.


In the SEA-PLM, there were some other findings worth noting in the six participating countries.

Girls were more likely to perform better than boys, regardless of socioeconomic status or school location.  In all countries, boys had lower levels of achievement than girls in reading and writing.  In 3 countries, they had lower levels of achievement in mathematics.  Despite the difference in performance, in all countries, few to large proportion of girls and boys still have difficulties reaching the expected level of performance in the three domains.

Children who spoke the language of instruction at home achieved higher levels of literacy in reading, writing, and mathematics than those who did not.  In the Philippines, less than 1 in 10 children spoke English – the language of the test – at home.  (The issue of language of instruction will be the subject of a future essay.)

On pre-primary education, a third of children had attended at least 2 years of preschool education.  A pattern emerged.  There is a clear benefit of pre-schooling on at least the 5 years of primary education.  Children who had attended at least 1 year of preschool education outperformed children who had not.  This has been the SDG argument to provide at least 1 year of free, high quality preschool education to enable the successful transition into primary school.


The SEA-PLM Grade 5 test results and its disappointing results for the Philippines allows us to learn from the past and prepare for the future of Filipino schoolchildren.

Looking at the early primary years (Grades 1-3), we need to do a better job in developing the foundational skills in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Preparing them for the future in high school, we need to do remediation efforts to address the revealed shortcomings in desired competencies in the three domains because leaving these unresolved will compound children’s problems in learning in higher grades and will be revealed in future higher level international tests – TIMSS when children are 13.5 years of age (Grade 8); PISA when they are 15.3 to 16.2 years of age (usually Grade 10).

Reality hurts, but reality ignored will only keep the country underdeveloped.  Basic education needs to go back to foundational skills in the primary years.  This means focusing on developing strong reading, writing, and mathematics literacy.

Juan Miguel Luz is a Fellow of FEU Public Policy Center