Good News, Bad News, and the Need for Comparable Education Data

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Here’s the good news: in the past 15 years, more children than ever have enrolled in primary school, thanks to a massive global effort to get them into the classroom. And here’s the bad news: despite the millions of extra children pouring into the world’s schools, many children still miss out.

Next week in Oslo, donors attending the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Board Meeting will have an agenda bursting with unfinished business. Alarmingly, around one-quarter of all children who enrol in primary school still drop out, as shown in a new filmfrom the UIS, despite the commitment to achieve universal primary education by the 2015 deadline for the MDGs. Looking ahead, donors will be bracing themselves as the UIS releases the first-ever data on how many youth are out of secondary school, to be published in July. If the numbers are high – and it looks as if they will be – it is nothing short of a disaster for these young people.

Donors are aware that access to education could falter without a stronger focus on equity and the wider challenges that keep certain children out of the classroom. Millions are out of school because they are the poorest of the poor; because they face discrimination based on their ethnicity, gender or disability; or because they are caught up in war. In the new age of the SDGs – which emphasise the need for equity and learning rather than just the numbers of children in school – the world has to do much better in the next 15 years.

Data could make all the difference. Statistics can wield real power: more than 1,000 internationally-comparable indicators produced by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) have been used to hold governments to account and to measure progress on a host of education issues, from gender barriers in access to education to literacy rates. However, education data remain notoriously messy – they can be drawn from different sources, each with its own purpose, approach and challenges.

Under SDG 4, governments must ensure 12 years of quality learning for every child by 2030, but how can global progress be tracked if we can’t yet measure the most basic reading and numeracy skills or figure out how much education actually costs? We need more data, especially from poor countries, so we can produce different kinds of indicators and pinpoint the areas that need urgent attention.

The 2030 Agenda is backed by an extensive set of indicators that will be tough for many countries to monitor. They need revitalized statistical systems, so we’re developing the standards, guidelines and methodological frameworks they can use to develop their own national strategies for the development of education statistics. These strategies will enable them to improve the quality of their national data, while making it easier to monitor global progress towards SDG 4. In other words, we’re providing some fuel but countries are in the driving seat.

Governments that have detailed profiles of the children who are out of school or at risk of dropping out have a better chance of targeting their resources to fulfil the universal right to education. By improving the quality of national data, governments can spend smarter and produce global indicators easier.

At the same time, we’re working with partners to develop global measures of learning and produce data that will help to ensure that children and youth are not just in school but acquiring the skills they need. This is part of an ongoing dialogue with countries to help them pursue their own paths to measure and implement the education targets based on their priorities and contexts.

Meet the Education 2030 Data

To capture these issues, we have launched Meet the Education 2030 Data, a series of briefs on the new global and thematic indicators that will be used to monitor progress towards SDG 4 and the Education 2030 targets.

The first two briefs relate to Target 4.1, which requires the international community to measure not only the completion of schooling but also the quality of learning in primary and lower secondary education. The UIS already produces data on completion rates at these levels; the challenge is to measure the quality of education and learning globally.

The first brief focuses on Indicator 4.1.1,  which will measure the percentage of children in primary education and at the end of secondary education who have absorbed the basics of reading, writing and mathematics. Our brief provides an initial picture of the share of children in Grades 2 or 3 who have reached at least a minimum proficiency level, but the indicator remains a work in progress. While many countries measure these basic skills, the data are rarely comparable. The standards for reading proficiency in Japan, for example, may not prevail in France. Such differences can be based on cultural context, which we don’t want to erase. But common measures can help us build a scaffold, or framework, for comparative purposes.

The second brief zooms in on Indicator 4.1.2, tracking the extent to which countries conduct learning assessments and/or participate in cross-national assessments in primary and secondary education. The maps show which countries have carried out or participated in assessments to measure the reading, writing and mathematical skills of school students over the past five years. Even a cursory glance reveals serious gaps in both geographic coverage of assessments and in the type of information gathered, as well as the areas that need targeted support. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, countries in the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) have not reported data since 2012 and may need more support from donors.

Both of these briefs demonstrate the sheer complexity involved in monitoring learning at the global level. For example, around 80% of countries have conducted some type of large-scale assessment but there is, as yet, no way to compare the results internationally.

This series will be an invaluable resource for the new Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) and complements other new initiatives such as the Catalogue of Learning Assessments. The UIS is now working with countries, as well as regional and international partners, to collect the data needed to produce data on Indicator 4.1.2. This will be no easy task, but if we do it right, we’ll be one step closer to ensuring that every student, teacher and school has the chance to excel.

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