Benchmarks: the forgotten commitment for accelerating progress towards SDG 4

Time for a new year resolution

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), and Manos Antoninis, Director, Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report

The Education 2030 Framework for Action called on countries to establish “appropriate intermediate benchmarks (e.g. for 2020 and 2025)” on the way to achieving SDG 4, seeing them as “indispensable for addressing the accountability deficit associated with longer-term targets” (§28).

Setting benchmarks as intermediate points cannot be done at the global level because countries have set off from very different starting points. However, as a quick search through the Planipolis repository of education plans of UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning can show, most countries are yet to formally set such national benchmarks even though we have reached 2020.

It is high time countries and the international community set the benchmarks to which they committed. The most promising way forward is to set benchmarks as minimum levels to be achieved by each country at the regional level (Figure 1). Our analysis and projections for the 2019 High Level Political Forum showed, for instance, that at current rates only 60% of young people will be completing secondary school by 2030. We need renewed emphasis to achieve SDG 4 and a benchmarking process will help build momentum.

The Framework for Action was explicit that benchmarks had to be set through an inclusive process. Such a process is already underway with the SDG – Education 2030 Steering Committee and the Technical Cooperation Group on the Indicators for SDG 4.

Figure 1. Hypothetical example of historic and target indicator trend with different regional minimum benchmarks in 2025 and 2030


Setting benchmarks is political…

Benchmarks can promote policy dialogue within and across countries based on a common understanding of a minimum threshold to be achieved.  There are various examples of preliminary attempts to define minimum levels some indicators at the international level.  For instance, under the Paris Agreement on climate change, countries set emissions reduction targets in line with national projections and intended policy changes to contribute to the global target of less than two degrees of warming. Countries report on their emissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat. The process is relevant for SDG 4, as it explicitly acknowledges that countries have vastly different starting points, in terms of both indicator and reporting capacity levels. For countries with weaker systems, the emphasis is on building capacity for accurate reporting.

The most relevant example for education is the European Commission’s benchmark setting process on seven education indicators to be achieved in the region by 2020, which is currently being repeated for benchmarks to be achieved by 2030. Progress towards the benchmarks is monitored through regional and national annual reports. The benchmarks, which operate as minimum levels of the indicators to be achieved by each country in the region, also serve as a soft coordination approach that allows countries both autonomy in how to achieve outcomes and peer learning by sharing experiences and strengthening government policies.

…but also technical

The choices European Union countries made on education benchmarks are supported by a strong cooperation mechanism. At the global level, the Technical Cooperation Group (TCG), which brings together countries representing all regions, plays this role. The Group is currently looking at methodological issues put forward by the UIS to make sure that benchmarks offer a technically robust but realistic set of expectations for countries given their different starting points.

In 2018, the UIS and the GEM Report led a national and regional consultation on possible approaches to SDG 4 benchmarking and mapped existing national and regional benchmarks.

A clear conclusion emerged from the last meeting of the TCG in August to set benchmarks for some SDG 4 indicators. TCG members reviewed the proposals and agreed on 6 out of the 43 SDG 4 indicators – plus the Framework for Action expenditure indicators – for which it would be possible to set a benchmark based on past trends, country coverage, frequency of data and policy relevance:

  • 1.1 Minimum proficiency levels in mathematics and reading
  • 1.4 Completion rate
  • 1.5 Out of school rate
  • 2.2 Participation rate in organized learning one year before the official primary entry age
  • 5.4 Education expenditure per student
  • c.1 Trained teachers
  • Education expenditure as percentage of (i) budget (ii) GDP.

Overcoming technical challenges in setting benchmarks

It is not straightforward to set benchmarks for all of these indicators. The trajectory for indicator 4.1.1 on the minimum proficiency in basic skills (reading and mathematics) is arguably more difficult to model. First, knowledge about national, regional and global past trends is still limited. Second, the factors influencing change at the country level (as opposed to a few schools subject to ‘experiments’) are poorly understood.

Partly as a result of that, countries tend to set unrealistically high benchmarks for learning outcomes – in poorer and richer countries alike. In Ethiopia, for instance, a 2015 plan envisages that 70% of Grade 2 pupils would reach a basic level of literacy by 2019, from a baseline of around 25% for 2014 – an increase of 9 percentage points each year. A 2003 plan in Hawaii, United States, as part of its ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy, envisaged an increase in the percentage of students in disadvantaged schools who were proficient in mathematics from a baseline of 20% in 2001 to 100% in 2014 – a rise of 6 percentage points each year.

To explore the options, the UIS commissioned a new paper in the framework of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML). The paper has looked at the baseline data of children achieving minimum proficiency levels and trends in different parts of the world. This informed an analysis of how the percentage of children achieving minimum proficiency by the end of primary education could evolve taking demographic and enrolment trends into account.

At the low end, the business as usual scenario would see the historical annual growth of 0.2 percentage points continue at the global level as observed in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Survey (PIRLS) of grade 4 students. In some regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, it is not yet possible to establish historical trends.

At the high end, the SDG 4 target scenario would see an annual growth of 4.2 percentage points at the global level to achieve universal minimum proficiency in basic reading skills by 2030. Sub-Saharan Africa would need to achieve a faster annual growth of 6.8 percentage points on average.

Between these two extremes, countries need to decide to set a benchmark as a minimum acceptable level to be reached by each country in the region to help intensify efforts to come as close as possible to the global target. For instance, sub-Saharan Africa may decide that no country will fall below a benchmark of 50% by 2030. Figure 2 shows a hypothetical example with three points: the average level for each region in 2015 (baseline); the minimum that every country in that region should meet by 2030 (benchmark); and the average level for each region in 2030 (projected), which is set higher as most countries in the region would exceed the benchmark. For some countries, meeting the benchmark implies rapid improvement if they start from a baseline of below 20% while other countries may already be above the benchmark (Figure 3).

For reference, the World Bank recently proposed halving learning poverty in low- and middle-income countries by 2030, which would be equivalent to an increase of 4.2 and 2.4 percentage points per year, respectively

Figure 2. Hypothetical regional minimum benchmarks for indicator 4.1.1 on learning outcomes

benchmarking 2

Figure 3. Hypothetical example of country distance at baseline from the regional minimum benchmark


Regions need to set benchmark levels

A basis for discussion is gradually emerging to fulfil the commitment made in the Framework for Action to set benchmarks for SDG 4 indicators. This builds on the political consensus at the SDG–Education 2030 Steering Committee, which endorsed the benchmarking process at the last meeting in November in Paris. It also builds on the technical work of the UIS supporting the TCG and GAML.

As a next step, the UIS will update and refine the technical note it tabled at the TCG meeting to facilitate discussions at the level of SDG 4 regional steering committees in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean in their forthcoming meetings in 2020. It is important for regions to steer the process with countries, navigating the technical and political processes outlined in this blog.

We are on the cliff-edge of the final decade of action to the 2030 deadline. Countries and the international community need to put in place the final building blocks of the follow up and review architecture of SDG 4. There are data gaps still to be filled. But it is also time for transparency in clearly identifying relevant benchmarks that regions and countries use to review their progress.


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