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The global state of learning in 2016

Indicators and discussion from the Global Education Monitoring Report

Reflections on the first year of implementing Sustainable Development Goal 4 and target 4.1: ensuring that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.


In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development including Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.” Though it is only one among the SDG Agenda’s seventeen goals, education has the strongest public mandate, emerging as the top priority among the millions of people who responded to the UN My World 2015 survey.

2016 is the first year of implementation for this global goal of offering quality education for all, but it builds on fifteen years of effort to achieve the Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDG) agendas, and more than a decade of earlier international cooperation on this issue before then. While much was accomplished over this period, it became clear that a focus on education quality and learning was lacking: it was estimated that over 250 million children (38% of the global primary school age population) were not learning even basic skills in literacy and mathematics, despite the fact that half of them had spent at least four years in school.


What new information do we have about the state of learning in 2016 under the SDGs?

The 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report, the official report monitoring global progress towards SDG4, resists making a pronouncement on the global state of learning one year into the SDG agenda. The focus, instead, is on what will be measured and how—reflecting a recognition that this discussion is still very much under way.

11 global indicators have been approved for tracking progress towards the ten distinct SDG4 targets, and an additional 32 thematic indicators have been proposed to gather more detailed information, for a total of 43 (see Annex II of this document for the full list). The indicators themselves, and the means for measuring them, are not yet finalized. As the GEM Report states, “Many important concepts in the 10 SDG4 targets are not yet covered by any proposed indicator. Among those that are covered, several details remain to be fixed in the indicators…” (p. 170).



What learning outcomes will be measured under SDG4?

The full list of 43 indicators includes some that address issues of access to education, some on inputs, some on processes, some on contextual factors and an enabling environment, and of course a number of indicators that are intended to measure educational outputs. While all of the factors measured by these indicators can affect learning and contribute to educational quality, as illustrated in our Improve Learning model, here we focus specifically on the indicators intended to measure learning outcomes directly at various levels of the basic education system (bold indicates a global indicator; the others are thematic indicators):[i]


Table 1: SDG4 Indicators related to measuring learning outcomes

 Indicator # (Target)

 Description of the indicator

 1. (4.1.)

 The percentage of children and young people (a) in grades 2/3; (b) at the end of primary; and (c) at the end of lower secondary achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in (i) reading and (ii) mathematics [disaggregated] by sex

 2. (4.1.)

 Administration of a nationally representative learning assessment (i) during primary, (ii) at the end of primary and (iii) at the end of lower secondary education

 8. (4.2.)

 Proportion of children under 5 years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being, by sex

 16. (4.4.)

 Proportion of youth and adults with information and communications technology (ICT skills), by type of skill

 22. (4.6.)

 Percentage of population in a given age group achieving at least a fixed level of proficiency in functional (a) literacy and (b) numeracy skills, by sex

 23. (4.6.)

 Youth/adult literacy rate

 26. (4.7.)

 Percentage of students by age group (or education level) showing adequate understanding of issues relating to global citizenship and sustainability

 27. (4.7.)

 Percentage of 15-year-old students showing proficiency in knowledge of environmental science and geoscience


Notably, target 4.5. calls for all data on these and the other education indicators to be disaggregated by characteristics such as: male/female, rural/urban, bottom/top wealth quintile, disability status, indigenous peoples, and conflict-affected groups, moving away from the blanket national averages that may mask inequalities in learning outcomes.

It is important to recognize that, while this table lists the indicators that most directly measure learning outcomes, there are other indicators—such as indicators 4 and 17 (completion rates) and indicator 6 (percentage of children over-age for grade)—that may also offer relevant information about learning achievement. Furthermore, many of the other indicators not mentioned in this list will provide data that is essential for interpreting and explaining progress in learning outcomes, or the lack of it.


What is the status of current efforts to measure learning outcomes?

The 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report argues that there are three preconditions that must be met in order for these indicators of learning outcomes to be measured (p. 193):

1. “consensus on the content of the learning outcomes to be assessed”,

2. “agreement on quality standards and a process to assure they are met”, and

3. “a process to link information from various sources to produce a common measure”.


Beyond these preconditions, there are also issues related to the political dimensions of measuring learning, the financial and human resources required, and the need to make assessments relevant for each country, not just for the monitoring needs of global institutions.

The UNESCO Institute of Statistics Database of Learning Assessments currently lists 63 countries that have national learning assessments on literacy or numeracy (typically both). Yet many of these assessments use different ways of defining literacy and numeracy and different benchmarks of proficiency; they also assess students at different grade levels, and most do not meet the requirements that would allow them to compare results from year to year and measure trends in learning achievement over time.

In addition to these national assessments, there are a range of regional (LLECE, SACMEQ, PASEC, SEA-PLM), international (PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS, ICILS), and civil society (UWEZO, ASER, MIA) assessment regimes. Each of these again uses its own definitions for different skills and proficiency levels, and different methods for assessing them.


In brief

A significant road still lies ahead before we will have clear and comparable data about learning outcomes around the world, and how these map onto different dimensions of diversity and stratification. It is safe to say that in 2016 the global state of learning probably looks very similar to that of 2015, especially considering that most countries have only begun planning the new efforts they will need to make in order to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Watch this section of the IIEP Learning Portal in the years to come, as we report annually on progress towards improving learning outcomes.


[i] Note that indicators concerning youth and adults are included on this list, even though they measure age groups outside the target population for basic education, because their learning achievements represent the longer-term outputs of the educational system.