Focus on our SDG 4 Data Digest Partners: The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement

By Dr Paulína Koršňáková, Senior Research and Liaison Advisor, IEA, and Dr Dirk Hastedt, Executive Director, IEA

The new edition of the SDG 4 Data Digest illustrates the range of partners working alongside the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) to help countries produce and use assessment data to strengthen lifelong learning. This blog highlights the work of one of these vital partners: The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), which runs TIMSS and PIRLS studies around the world to assess children’s achievements in reading and mathematics.  

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) has drawn on 60 years of leadership in the field of international large-scale assessments in education to contribute to this year’s SDG Data Digest. IEA studies measure student achievement in subjects such as mathematics and science (TIMSS), reading (PIRLS), civic and citizenship education (ICCS), and computer and information literacy (ICILS) which, taken together, span the three key stages outlined in the Digest for the measurement of lifelong learning.

As reported in the Digest, our open access datasets are recognised by UNESCO as a solid evidence base for researchers, educators and policymakers interested in monitoring progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Here we share some highlights.

Most students reach minimum proficiency levels in mathematics and science but, as the Digest shows, there is still work to be done

Two decades of results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 1995-2015) and 15-year trends from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS, 2001-2016) reveal genuine improvements: more countries have registered increases than decreases in average student achievement scores in 4th grade reading achievement and in both 4th and 8th grade mathematics and science. While these results reflect only the mid- and high-income countries that participate in TIMSS and PIRLS, we are widening participation to include more low-income countries through projects such as the Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (LaNA), the PIRLS Literacy Assessment and TIMSS less difficult.

The low international benchmarks for TIMSS and PIRLS represent basic functions and competencies identified as the most appropriate to measure progress on the minimum proficiency level for SDG 4 (Indicator 4.1.1). For example, students who achieve the low international benchmark for PIRLS can locate, retrieve, and reproduce explicitly-stated information from a text, make straightforward inferences and – very importantly – begin to interpret the meaning and ideas contained in a story. The 96% of students who achieved at least a minimum reading proficiency level in PIRLS 2016 is the average across all 50 participating countries.

While this is a positive result, there is still much work to do in improving literacy levels for countries at the lower end of the scale. The situation is particularly challenging in three countries (Morocco, Egypt and South Africa), where less than 40% of Grade 4 students achieved the minimum reading proficiency level in PIRLS 2016 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The percentage of grade 4 students who performed at or above the minimum reading proficiency level (400 scale score points) in PIRLS 2016


Note: Data refer to the 23 countries where less than 95% of students performed at or above the minimum reading proficiency level.
Source: PIRLS 2016.

Most students are in safe school environments, but bullying is still a problem

In TIMSS 2015, the vast majority of Grade 4 students (90%) were in safe school environments (SDG Target 4.a) according to their principals and teachers. Not surprisingly, the 10% of students who attended schools with ‘disorderly’ environments had lower achievements in mathematics and science than their counterparts in safer schools: 468 vs. 512 scale score points.

It is also worrying that 45% students in TIMSS 2015 reported that they were bullied monthly or weekly. The results of a secondary analysis by David and Leslie Rutkowski (2018) confirmed that bullying is an international phenomenon that has an impact on the educational achievement of students who are bullied.

Many students lack reading resources

PIRLS context questionnaires help to gather information on school conditions and resources (SDG Target 4.c). According to reports from principals, only 31% of students who participated in PIRLS 2016 were unaffected by any shortages of reading resources, and they achieved an average score of 521 points. In contrast, the 6% of students who were greatly affected by shortages in reading resources achieved scores that were significantly lower, at 474 points, which is well below the international average (see Figure 2).

Figure 2.


The UNESCO/IEA publication, Measuring SDG 4: How PIRLS can Help (2017) provides a comprehensive overview of the scope and depth of information available to improve both teaching and learning.

Children who belong to the “digital native” generation still need to learn how to interact with digital information

As the first study to create an international benchmark of digital literacy proficiency levels and to investigate the factors that influence these skills in young people, the International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) provides important data for SDG indicator 4.4.1: the proportion of youth with ICT skills.

Results from ICILS 2013 showed that 84% of students reached Level 1 on the digital proficiency scale, signaling that they can master basic software commands to access files and complete routine text and layout editing tasks. However, only 2% of students displayed critical thinking when searching for information online (Level 4 on the digital proficiency scale) (see Figure 3). We look forward to analyzing findings from ICILS 2018 to discover any changes in trends over the past five years. The international report will be released in November 2019.

Figure 3. Percentage of students in ICILS 2013 who reached specific proficiency levels of digital literacy (averages across 21 participating educational systems)


Note: Results based on the average across 21 participating educational systems.
Source: ICILS 2013,

The results reported here represent just a few of the important insights provided by the IEA on student achievement and their role in monitoring progress towards the SDGs. We look forward to working with the UIS to find ways to link such results to other assessment initiatives, making the most of existing data and lay the foundations for cross-nationally comparable data on learning.  We are proud that our research contributes to this important endeavour and have been delighted to partner with the UIS on the SDG 4 Data Digest.

 About the Authors

Bio1-IEA-blogAs Senior Research and Liaison Adviser for IEA, Dr Paulína Koršňáková is responsible for supporting and developing existing memberships and institutional partnerships within IEA’s mission of researching education to improve learning. Prior to joining IEA in 2010, she led implementation and reporting for various international large-scale assessments at a national level in the Slovak Republic. Dr Koršňáková is an experienced teacher, lecturer and researcher and represents Slovakia on the European Educational Research Association (EERA) Council. Paula on LinkedIn, @Paula_IEA

Bio2-IEA-blogDr Dirk Hastedt was appointed the Executive Director of the IEA in 2014. Since joining IEA in 1989, he has worked across all aspects of IEA studies including as a researcher, project manager and director of international studies. He is recognized as a leading expert in education and serves as both chair of the IEA Technical Executive Group and co-editor in chief of the IEA-ETS Research Institute’s journal, Large-scale Assessments in EducationDirk on LinkedIn, @Dirk_IEA

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