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What is new in the latest UIS data release – and what gaps remain to be addressed?

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) releases data in September and in March. The latter data release finalizes the processing of data collected by UIS surveys in the last reference year. Each release is a complex technical process, involving multiple data sources (administrative, survey/census, learning assessment, and expenditure data) and multiple data producers.

A lot of new data points have been added, especially on educational attainment.

About 112,000 data points were added to the UIS database, of which 76% are for SDG indicators and 24% for other policy relevant indicators. The increase has been mainly related to the following indicators:

  • education attainment rate (SDG indicator 4.4.3), which accounts for the bulk of new data points (76%, including points for its parity index);
  • out-of-school rate (4.1.4; 9%);
  • tertiary education gross enrolment ratio (4.3.2; 6%); and
  • minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics (4.1.1), over-age attendance rate (4.1.5), early childhood education participation rate (4.2.2), youth/adult literacy rate (4.6.2), and students taught in their home language (4.5.2), each of which contributed about 2% of new data points.

In the case of indicator 4.4.3, the new data points were added by tapping on the International Labour Organisation’s repository of labour force surveys, which record educational attainment by level, sex and urban/rural location. Importantly, 21 new countries and territories have been added to the UIS database (bringing the total from 174 to 195), of which 9 are in Oceania and 5 in sub-Saharan Africa. Data from the 2020 Census have been used to update estimates for China.

Globally, 84% of adults have completed at least primary education. The SDG regions that fall below the global average are Latin America and the Caribbean (77%), Central and Southern Asia (67%) and sub-Saharan Africa, where just over half of the adult population has completed primary education. Differences become more acute at higher levels of education. For instance, there are 35 countries and territories where fewer than 1 in 5 adults have completed at least upper secondary education and just 28 countries and territories where more than 4 in 5 adults have done so.

Percentage of population 25+ years that completed at least upper secondary education.

Source: UIS database

But some data gaps remain a concern.

The Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), which is the inter-governmental body responsible for the development of the SDG monitoring framework, has set specific criteria for the 2025 comprehensive review of indicators: ‘available data or a link to where the data can be located; data must be available for at least 40 per cent of countries and of the population across the different regions where the indicator is relevant; and a plan for how data coverage will be expanded must be included if current data coverage is below 50 per cent’. There are clear process guidelines and an invitation from IAEG-SDGs to custodian agencies for indicators that are below 40% to present a data plan to reach 50%.

There are two global indicators with low coverage in population terms:

  • Children developmentally on track (4.2.1) at 35%, none of which is a high-income country.
  • Functional literacy and numeracy proficiency (4.6.1) at 7%, all of them upper-middle- and high-income countries. Given very low coverage, the youth/adult literacy rate (indicator 4.6.2) may be proposed as a replacement global indicator, as its coverage is high (81%), except in high-income countries (27%) where literacy rates are close to universal and therefore the indicator is less relevant.

Three global indicators have relatively higher coverage that still falls below 50%:

  • Minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics (4.1.1);
  • ICT skills (4.4.1); and
  • Extent to which global citizenship education and education for sustainable development are mainstreamed in policy, curricula, teacher education, and assessment (4.7.1).
Population and country overage of global SDG 4 indicators

Source: UIS based on UIS database March 2024 release and IAEG-SDG Report to the UNSC (2024).

Coverage of indicator 4.1.1 is sufficiently high at the end of primary/lower-secondary education (4.1.1b and c), at 46% of the population and 60% of countries. But it is low at grades 2/3 (4.1.1a), at 16% of the population and 20% of countries. Coverage is related to the level of income. The percentage of population in countries covered with at least one data point between 2018 and 2022 is 33% in low-, 35% in lower-middle-, 50% in upper-middle- and 92% in high-income countries.

In early December 2023, the UIS convened a meeting of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning to define minimum acceptable criteria for reporting indicator 4.1.1a that ensure comparability at the minimum proficiency level for different types of assessments. These criteria include a refined definition of decoding and a scoring model for assessments of individual children. The UIS set a Technical Advisory Group that met on 4–6 March to decide upon further operational aspects such as:

  • locating precursor reading skills on a learning progression continuum to facilitate comparability for assessments that are not aligned to the minimum proficiency level; and
  • identifying benchmarks for each of the precursor skills by language.

What solutions are there to close data gaps?

Ahead of the 2025 SDG indicator review, various steps are needed to make progress with some of the persistent data gaps, depending on the indicator.

First, some indicators will need to be replaced with related ones that have higher coverage, such as in the case of the youth and adult literacy rate.

Second, following the decisions of the Conference on Education Data and Statistics, consensus is needed on re-defining the qualified and trained teacher indicators. Lack of shared understanding among countries is the main reason for remaining gaps – and for limited comparability.

Third, coverage on indicator 4.1.1a is expected to increase, as countries that have participated in the Pacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA) and the Assessment for Minimum Proficiency Level (AMPLa) (in sub-Saharan Africa) release their results at the national level. But more coordinated international support will be needed to fill the gaps in data on learning outcomes in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Fourth, some indicators can be informed by multiple data sources, but this potential has not yet been tapped, except in the cases of out-of-school and completion rates. We have proposed, and the Conference on Education Data and Statistics has decided, to explore this potential further.


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