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Can we quantify learning globally to measure progress on SDG 4?

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This is a companion blog to the series of blogs from the 2016 Edition of World Development Indicators. This blog draws on data from the World Bank’s EdStats database.

Many countries are struggling to improve national learning averages in core subjects such as reading, mathematics and science. While the majority of students reach the lowest international benchmark level in core subjects by the age of 14 or 15, a significant proportion do not. For those that fail, they are unlikely to be able to master these skills by the end of their schooling. This will impact on their ability to join the labor force and have productive jobs. Sustainable Development Goal 4 looks to “ensure inclusive and quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” in an attempt to widen the talents of a country’s future workforce and set the stage for increased economic growth. Education assessments, while not wholly comparable, shed light on countries’ achievements or gaps in the provision of a high quality and effective education system.

International benchmarks in mathematics are not universally met

Students’ abilities and attainment in core subjects vary widely across the world  as shown by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) mathematics assessment for 8th graders (2011) where the average student scores in 70 percent of countries surveyed were below the international average.

Furthermore, on average only 72 percent of the students in the 40 participating countries were able to reach the lowest international benchmark in mathematics.  Regional variations were marked:  on average over 80 percent of students in East Asia and the Pacific and in Europe and Central Asia reached this benchmark, while just 56 percent in the Middle East and North Africa did. Ghana was the lone participating country in Africa with only 21 percent of the students achieving the lowest level in mathematics proficiency. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2012 examines the mathematics proficiency levels of 15 year olds in 63 countries.  In the Middle East and North Africa nearly 60 percent failed to reach the baseline proficiency level of mathematics proficiency, while around a third of students in all countries, on average, did not meet that level.

A large minority of African students are falling behind in mathematics 

Assessments in Africa reveal that on average a third of students in 14 participating countries failed to achieve the level of basic numeracy in the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality SACMEQ Grade 6 (2007) mathematics assessment.

On average, nearly half of students in countries surveyed for the Programme for the Analysis of Education Systems (PASEC) Grade 5 (2010) mathematics did not reach the knowledge base rate of answering more than 40 percent of questions correctly.


Poor proficiency in reading is spread across regions 

The Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) is an oral student assessment of the most basic foundation skills for literacy acquisition in the early grades: recognizing letters of the alphabet, reading simple words, understanding sentences and paragraphs, and listening with comprehension. The level of the achievement in this area varies across and within countries. For example, more than 50 percent of students scored zero in the reading comprehension assessment in Zambia, while only 11 percent of students did in Indonesia. In Tanzania, 95 percent of student scored zero in assessments carried out in English, compared with 40 percent of students tested in Kiswahili. 

The PISA 2012 reading assessment showed, on average, that over a quarter of 15-year-old students were unable to recognize the main idea in a text, to understand relationships, or to construe meaning within a limited part of the text when the information was not prominent and the reader must make low level inferences. In many Latin American and Middle Eastern countries on average nearly half failed, while in Indonesia, Malaysia and Kazakhstan, more than half of all students did.

Focusing on the reading ability of younger Grade 4 students, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), 2011 shows that 90 percent of students in 41 countries were able to achieve the lowest international benchmark in reading. In sharp contrast, some countries did not perform well in these assessments: on average, more than half of students in Morocco and Oman, for example, failed to achieve this level of proficiency.

The dismal performance in these scores call for stronger reforms to improve student performance in education. Indeed these tests - either international, regional or national – need to be used to measure progress towards SDG goal of improving learning. No one test can do it alone.


Husein Abdul-Hamid

Senior Education Specialist

Hiroko Maeda

Program Manager, Development Data Group

Edie Purdie

Consultant, Development Data Group (DECDG), World Bank

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