We have been ringing alarm bells about the global learning crisis for some time, with 617 million children and adolescents worldwide unable to read a simple sentence or handle a basic mathematics calculation. This year’s SDG 4 Data Digest: Data to Nurture Learning from the UIS turns up the volume, making the case for data to monitor lifelong learning.
The Digest is the go-to source for information on how to gather data on learning outcomes and – above all – how to use the information to improve those outcomes, showcasing proven and promising approaches. This is where data have real power: showing us the challenges and kick-starting the changes needed to ensure lifelong learning.
Data to tackle the global learning crisis
The Digest is blunt about the scale of the task ahead. One-third of the children and adolescents who are not acquiring basic literacy or numeracy skills are out of school, and each and every one of them needs access to the education that is their right. But two-thirds of them are actually in school.
Far from being hidden away or hard to reach, they are sitting right there, right now, in the world’s classrooms, waiting for their education systems to deliver the quality education they have been promised. That promise has been broken far too often, as shown by the dismal lack of progress on learning outcomes over the past 15 years. It is perhaps no surprise then to discover that the greatest educational equity gaps are found in learning outcomes.
This matters, given the critical importance of learning for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from reducing poverty to tackling gender discrimination, and from ending hunger to building healthy, peaceful societies.
How can these goals be reached by the 2030 deadline if significant numbers of people continue to lack the most basic skills? And how can we track progress on learning when current cross-national and regional assessments are not fully comparable? At present, 80% of countries are assessing learning but the results cannot be compared.
Learning is a lifelong process
The 2018 Digest explores the internationally-comparable data needed to reach SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, recognizing that learning does not start and end at the school gates.
This is a process that we experience throughout our entire life, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. We learn to walk, to talk, to think. We learn how to live together. We learn the working skills needed to make a living and to contribute to society. In other words, we learn how to learn (see our film).
The Digest explores data to monitor learning outcomes at three key stages during those all-important school years (in Grade 2 or 3; at the end of primary school; and at the end of lower secondary school), but it goes further. It reviews data to inform the early learning that prepares children for school, the digital skills that are increasingly vital for employment in the 21st century, and the adult literacy that assures an entire lifetime of learning.
In each chapter, leading experts set out effective data initiatives that do more than gather and crunch the numbers: they also aim for change and, in the process, help to drive that change.
The Digest argues that national participation in learning assessments is an opportunity to reinforce data systems and build vital capacity. It is about investing not only in data gathering, but also in people who know how to use data to shape policy and practice.
Human capacity, backed by good training and robust investment, is critical for effective learning assessments, and the Digest includes frameworks and tools to mobilize that capacity. It also showcases initiatives by other development partners, such as the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), to support learning assessment at the global, regional and country levels.
The way forward
The data tell us that we should be worried about learning outcomes. At the same time, the way in which data are gathered is blurring the global picture. The good news is that there is growing consensus around the need for international comparability, with the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML), established and hosted by the UIS, supporting national strategies for learning assessments and developing internationally-comparable indicators and methodological tools to measure progress towards SDG 4. Once you have consensus, backed by political will, anything is possible and no problem is insurmountable.
The Digest provides the tools and methodologies – many of them developed by the UIS – that can help countries make informed decisions about what type of assessment suits their own needs and capacities, how to participate in assessments and how to ensure that they have the capacity in place to improve learning outcomes through the effective use of data.
For example, the new Learning Assessment Dashboard, just released by the UIS, shows countries the extent to which they can use each cross-national assessment for SDG 4 reporting. You can even drill down to the specific questions that correspond to each indicator.
Recognizing the lack of funding as a major obstacle, the Digest also makes a strong case for greater investment in learning assessments from both donors and governments. It aims for a shift in perspective, with assessments seen as a benefit rather than a cost.
Participation in major international or region-wide assessments can be costly, with participation in PIRLS or TIMSS, for example, costing each country roughly US$500,000 every four years — a total expenditure of US$125,000 each year for each test. This can look like a hefty price tag for a smaller economy.
However, when set against the overall cost of providing schooling, it is a pittance. Low- and middle-income countries spend an estimated US$5.8 billion each year on education. The UIS estimates that solid data on learning to gauge whether policies and programs are working, or whether reforms are needed, could improve education spending efficiency by 5%, generating US$30 million each year in savings in the average country, paying for the cost of the assessments hundreds of times over.
The SDG 4 Data Digest confirms that strenuous efforts are being made to measure learning and that there is no shortage of global talent that can devoted to these efforts. There are many examples of the creative use of assessments for particular purposes, beyond reporting internally or on the SDGs. And there are examples of assessments that persist over time and allow countries to track their journey towards SDG 4, providing evidence on how countries progress.
The main ingredient missing is the institutional ‘glue’ that can help current efforts learn from each other, develop standards and improve reporting. This ‘glue’ includes better comparability of reporting, better standards, and better and more stable funding.
The SDG 4 Data Digest 2018 provides arguments and suggestions to build the investment case for these missing ingredients, while showcasing the strong foundations that are already in place.