Why completion rates should be part of the SDG global indicator framework
By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, and Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report
The clock is ticking, with just over a decade to ensure that every child, adolescent and youth completes primary and secondary education of quality.
The good news is that the global primary completion rate has been steadily rising from 70% in 2000 to an estimated 84% in 2018. If current trends continue, the rate will reach 89% by 2030, according to recent projections by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and the Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR), and 93% allowing for those who are going to complete primary school very late. By accelerating this rate of growth, we can still achieve universal primary completion by 2030.
Figure 1. Upper secondary completion rates, 2000-2018, and projections to 2030
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for secondary education (see Figure 1). Without a major transformation in education, only six in ten young people will be completing secondary school in 2030.
While our projections sent a shockwave throughout the international community, we must keep up the pressure by regularly reporting on education completion at the global, regional and country levels.
This is why the UIS, as custodian agency for SDG 4 data, has proposed that the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) include completion rates within the global monitoring framework with the aim of offering a more informed view of progress towards target 4.1. This proposal was based on consultation with the Technical Cooperation Group on the Indicator for SDG 4 (TCG) in 2017.
There are several reasons for the proposal. By raising the profile of the indicator, we can highlight the urgency for action across the UN system. For example, as a global monitoring indicator, completion rates would be included in the annual SDG progress reports. Accordingly, the recent meeting of the TCG in Yerevan, Armenia, endorsed the completion rate as one of the indicators for which to define reference points for progress at the global and regional level.
The Technical Cooperation Group has also requested available data to be used more efficiently to calculate the completion rate. This will build on the lessons learned from other flagship indicators that rely on multiple sources, such as child mortality rates.
Critically, we can combine the completion rate with learning outcome indicators to offer a more comprehensive and accurate perspective on progress towards target 4.1, as shown in a new UIS paper.
The benefits of combining data on completion and learning
As part of target 4.1, countries have pledged to “ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes” by 2030.
Progress towards this target is measured by SDG Indicator 4.1.1, which tracks the “proportion of children and young people (a) in Grade 2 or 3; (b) at the end of primary education; and (c) at the end of lower secondary education achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in (i) reading and (ii) mathematics, by sex.”
Indicator 4.1.1 has just been upgraded to Tier I at the meeting of the IAEG-SDGs taking place this week in Addis Ababa. But as it stands, indicator 4.1.1 calculates the percentage of children in school who achieve a minimum learning proficiency level. The problem is that the indicator does not currently take into account the extent to which children are reaching these points in their education trajectory. As shown in Figures 2 and 3, while 81% of children in sub-Saharan Africa are actually in school, only 63% complete primary education. The rates fall even further for lower secondary education, with 63% of children between the ages of about 12 to 14 years enrolled in school and only 38% completing this level.
Source: UIS database. Regional averages for completion rates calculated by the UIS for this paper.
What’s more, focusing on the learning outcomes of students can actually mask progress towards target 4.1. In Indonesia, for example, the proportion of 15-year-old students achieving the minimum proficiency in science according to the OECD PISA definition fell from 38% to 33% between 2006 and 2012. At first glance, it looks as if the country is losing ground in terms of providing a quality education. But it doesn’t factor in the major increase in the enrolment of 15-year-olds over the same period – from 74% to 86% — which resulted in more 15-year-olds achieving the minimum proficiency in science.
It seems counter-intuitive, but the faster the increase in the proportion of children in school, the greater the likelihood of a decline in learning outcomes. Among the many reasons for this, it may take time for education systems to adjust and provide quality education to the more disadvantaged students entering the system, who may require extra support to catch up with their more privileged peers.
How to improve the monitoring of the target using completion
To tackle this dilemma, the new UIS paper shows the results of combining a quality-adjusted completion rate and indicator 4.1.1 to measure the proportion of children completing primary and lower secondary and achieving minimum proficiency in (i) mathematics and (ii) reading at approximate the end of primary and lower-secondary.
The adjustment measures completion but only counts students as learning if they attain the minimum proficiency. For example, if 80% of children complete primary school but only 60% of children in school attain the minimum reading proficiency at the end of primary school, then the proportion of children completing primary school and achieving the minimum learning proficiency is 48% (the product of the two numbers).
Globally, 41% of lower-secondary students achieve the minimum proficiency in mathematics according to the original indicator 4.1.1(c) but the value for the adjusted indicator would fall to 32% of adolescents completing lower secondary and achieving a minimum proficiency in mathematics.
Clearly, when completion is near 100%, there is little difference between the results of the two indicators. However, when access to education and completion remain a significant barrier, the adjusted indicator provides a better understanding of how far we have to go to achieve target 4.1. So the greatest differences between the two indicators are found in the most poverty-stricken regions of the world, where having the clearest picture of progress—or lack of it—is most vital. And we urgently need that picture if we are to have any chance of reaching SDG 4: a quality education for all.
 The paper also includes analysis based on an adjustment to indicator 4.1.1 at grade 2/3 based on enrollment data.