50 Years of Global Data on Education Quality
Learning Outcomes Matter
A country’s education level is critical for its economic success. However, it is not just the quantity of education that counts. The quality of the education is also critically important. In other words, it’s not about how many years a child spends in school that matters, but rather what is learned.
But how does one measure education quality across countries and over time? And what can we learn from such research?
In January 2018, the World Bank Group’s Education Global Practice Group released a groundbreaking report that presents the largest globally comparable database of education quality. Importantly, the report finds a positive and significant association between educational achievement and economic growth, proving that learning outcomes matter.
The dataset upon which the report is based is the most inclusive and recent of its kind, spanning 50 years and 163 countries/areas, and representing 91 percent of the global population. Of those areas covered, more than 100 are developing countries—those that have the most to gain from the potential benefits of a high-quality education.
This database captures the proportion of students within each country who reach international benchmarks (minimum, intermediate and advanced) in three subjects: math, science and reading. The data can be disaggregated by gender, socioeconomic status, urban/rural, immigration status and language, enabling equity analysis as well as more targeted analysis. Overall, the data provides, by country, an estimate of the distribution of student performance in fundamental skill areas, which, as the report notes, “is essential for our understanding of population-level human capital formation.”
Globally, countries have made solid progress toward getting children in school. Indeed, there are more people in school now than ever before. In 1950, the average schooling was six years in advanced countries; today it is more than ten. In Africa, it was less than two years, but is now more than five. And East Asia has experienced a more than 200 percent increase in its average schooling, going from two to seven years between 1950 and 2010. Globally, these numbers are projected to increase to an average of 10 years of schooling by 2050, representing a more than five-fold increase in a century and a half.
But that does not necessarily mean the quality of education is likewise improving. According to UNESCO, 617 million children and adolescents worldwide—including more than 387 million children of primary school age and 230 million adolescents of lower secondary school age—are not reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. This signals a learning crisis that stands in the way of countries ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Education is one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality, and for laying a foundation for sustained growth. Better schooling investments raise national productivity and income growth rates. But in nearly all countries, albeit to varying degrees, educational progress has lagged for groups that are disadvantaged due to low income, gender, disability, or ethnic and/or linguistic affiliation.
The report’s authors deployed a unique methodology that enables comparison among existing International Student Achievement Tests (ISATs), like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and Regional Student Achievement Tests (RSATs) including Southern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ), Programme for the Analysis of Education Systems (PASEC), and Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education (LLECE). They compared the same countries at the same point in time that took both an ISAT and an RSAT—referred to as doubloon countries—in order to index difficulty and scales across tests.
The results uncovered regional gaps in education quality and identified long-term achievement trends, which provide important examples of the potential effects of successful versus failed educational policy reforms. Most notably:
Global Thresholds of Proficiency
Less than 50 percent of students reach the minimum global threshold of proficiency in developing countries, compared to 86 percent in developed countries.
Twenty-five percent of students in developing economies reach the intermediate benchmark, compared to 66 percent in developed ones.
For advanced benchmarks, only 2 percent of students reach the global threshold, relative to 10 percent in developed countries.
Asian countries in general seem to outperform countries from other regions in the primary and secondary levels, followed by North America and Europe. Latin America and the Caribbean and Northern Africa are the next best performers, followed by sub-Saharan Africa.
Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the worst performers, have larger gaps in primary education performance than secondary education performance.
Among middle income countries, those in Eastern Europe and Central Asia perform the best.
Developing countries perform worse in both primary and secondary education than developed countries.
The top-performing country in sub-Saharan Africa still performs lower than the lowest performing country in developed economies.
Where girls are enrolled in school, the gender gaps are small.
There is no consistent pattern; the female premium—or advantage females have in terms of learning outcomes—toggles between positive and negative depending on the region.
Females tend to most outperform males in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Developing regions have higher gender-based variance in performance than developed countries.
Performance Trends Since 1965
At the primary level, mean performance scores have fluctuated over time, but increased overall.
At the secondary level, performance overall has decreased.
The largest gains in secondary schooling quality are found in Hong Kong SAR, China, followed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and Finland.
A few countries—France, Hungary, Thailand and Chile—have experienced a decline in performance.
Future Research: Where Do We Go From Here?
By exploiting a larger, more inclusive panel data set, the authors uncovered a strong correlation between education quality and economic development; higher learning outcomes are associated with higher levels of economic growth. This relationship is stronger in lower-income countries. Still, the current research has limitations. For example, potential selection effects, like enrollment and retention, make it harder to capture “value added” learning, and the limited number of doubloon countries makes the reliability of the scale admittedly tenuous. Further work can improve on the scale.
With some adjustments, future research can improve upon this report. Researchers should consistently update the data set every few years to include more developing countries, enhance longitudinal dimension, and increase overall robustness as more doubloon countries are included (the World Bank should internalize this and make it into an ongoing, long-term endeavor). Once the dataset is finalized in the coming months, it will be available online. Additionally, building up the data set to enable better capturing of “value-added” learning, linking quality data to quantity data (e.g., average years of schooling) and including additional measures of education quality (e.g., returns to schooling data) are all ways to enable more accurate, robust analysis.
USAID is actively engaged with the World Bank Group to contribute as much data on learning as possible to the panel data set. As each USAID mission and project reports out on learning data, the cumulative amount of information in the dataset becomes richer, enabling ever better analyses of progress toward actual learning.
The better we are able to pinpoint gaps in education quality, the better prepared we will be to address—and improve—them. This and future data sets will help engender a deeper understanding of the mechanisms driving human capital formation and can lead to useful education policy applications, the benefits of which can be long-lasting and widespread.