Target 4.6 – What is at stake for monitoring progress on adult literacy and numeracy?


4.6 By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy

4-6While the indicator for measuring adult literacy and numeracy skills is effective, many countries have yet to adopt the necessary tools to make monitoring it possible.

Target 4.6 is poorly formulated: it views literacy as something to be ‘achieved’, similar to the old belief that illiteracy was something to be ‘eradicated’.

However, the global indicator, which refers instead to the percentage of those achieving at least a ‘level of proficiency’ in functional literacy and numeracy skills, makes up for this deficiency. It comes closer to the view of literacy as not just a set of skills but also their application. It also recognizes recent advances in the direct assessments of skills.

One useful source of data for this indicator is the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC). This assessment establishes a reporting framework of six proficiency levels describing tasks that individuals can typically undertake.

For example, individuals at literacy level 2 ‘can integrate two or more pieces of information based on criteria, compare and contrast or reason about information and make low-level inferences’. In the first round of PIAAC in 2011, which was administered in high income countries, 15% of adults fell below this basic proficiency standard, ranging from less than 5% in Japan to almost 28% in Italy.

numeracyThe World Bank Skills Towards Employability and Productivity (STEP) survey, administered in urban areas of middle income countries, was designed to record results using PIAAC’s literacy scale. In Colombia, where 75% of people live in urban areas, STEP showed that 36% of the population in 13 major metropolitan areas scored below level 2. This stands in sharp contrast with Colombia’s official literacy rate of 94%.

However, these two assessment platforms do not cover all countries (and all age groups), leaving significant gaps in our monitoring of the target worldwide. How can we increase the number of countries that monitor adult proficiency levels in literacy and numeracy? And how can these skills be compared between countries if they use different questions, scale the responses in different ways, and use different approaches to describe proficiency levels? There are two options.

The first is to use a model like that followed by PIAAC and STEP. This adapts to the skill level of the respondent and makes it possible to cover a broader range of skills and difficulty levels. Countries would use statistical analysis to assess the skills of adults against a common scale. But such designs require a high capacity for statistical analysis and are therefore costly due to the need to train personnel and use computer technology.

The second is to use a simpler design in which all respondents receive the same assessment questions. An international expert group could create a common pool of such questions. All countries would be permitted to translate and adapt questions to local systems and circumstances. The number of usable questions and the range of skills would be lower. This may make the assessment less reliable. Nevertheless, this option may be more realistic given the resource constraints – and therefore able to be implemented regularly.

iso-instagramOur overarching recommendation for this target, therefore is that care should be taken to adopt a model for assessing adult literacy and numeracy skills that is both relevant and feasible for countries with few resources. [Tweet]

Unless progress is made soon in rolling out one of the two options, in 2030 we will still be measuring literacy and numeracy skills on the basis of what adults subjectively report as their own literacy levels or based on what others assess their skills to be. These methods are far less reliable or informative than direct assessments of literacy and numeracy skills. The international community continues to employ the conventional approach, as seen in the 2016 SDG report. Surely we deserve better.

This is the fifth in a series of ten blogs on monitoring SDG4, which we hope will serve as a reminder of some of the challenges remaining, and as a call to join hands to address them. Join us over the next two weeks by direct tweeting some of our key recommendations from this blog series to members of the two groups finalising education indicators on our behalf.

View our growing list of SDG 4 Workshop presentations.



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