Research Press Release

Education: Progress in learning may not increase with school enrolment


March 11, 2021

Although enrolment in schools has risen globally between 2000 and 2017, progress in learning (as measured by standardized tests) has been limited reports a study published online in Nature. The findings are based on the analysis of a new dataset, assembled by the World Bank, which incorporates data from 164 countries representing 98% of the world’s population.

Human capital — the value of people’s experience and skills to an organization or country — is an important component of economic development. This has normally been measured using metrics of schooling as a proxy, in which being in school translates into learning, which then translates to human capital. Much of the effort to measure learning has focused on high-income countries, and there has been an absence of comparable measures of learning from developing economies.

Noam Angrist and colleagues introduce the Harmonized Learning Outcomes database, which enables comparisons of learning progress across the world. The database includes the results from seven different types of tests, which each cover between 10 and 72 countries, and have been combined and made comparable. Scores were disaggregated by schooling level (primary or secondary), subject (maths, science and reading) and gender. The authors found that from 2000 to 2017 there was an increase in schooling for pupils (average number of years spent in school) and enrolment rates, but limited progress in learning. For example, in the Middle East and North Africa, enrolment rates for primary education increased from 95% to 99% between 2000 and 2010. However, learning levels remained around a score of 380 from 2000 to 2015 (high performance was considered to be a score of 625 and low performance a score of 300).

Although modelling suggests that the world is on track to achieve universal primary enrolment by 2030, the authors argue that this will mean little if learning continues to stagnate.

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