Meet the SDG 4 Data: Measuring Youth and Adult Literacy and Numeracy

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS)
This blog was also published by the Global Partnership for Education

SDG 4 indicator 4.6.1 shows the proportion of youth and adults with functional literacy and numeracy skills

Taken together, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a ‘recipe’ for countries to be productive and prosperous, resulting in populations that are well-educated and well-equipped for employment in the 21st century.

We have already discussed some of the challenges to this vision in this series of blogs on the data for Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on a quality education and lifelong learning for all. Our blog on SDG 4 indicator 4.4.1, in particular, has stressed the importance of information and communications technology (ICT) skills in an increasingly digital world. But above all, we need to be able to read, write and handle basic calculations.

As things stand, however, we face a global learning crisis that threatens the achievement not only of SDG 4, but also every other goal, from poverty reduction to the enhancement of development partnerships. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) rang the alarm bells last September with the most recent data on learning, revealing that 617 million children and adolescents worldwide – six out of ten – are not reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics.

Millions of youth and adults are unable to play their full part in the social and economic life of their communities and nations because they lack the skills to read or write a simple sentence or make a simple calculation.

This blog examines SDG 4 target 4.6: by 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy and Indicator 4.6.1: proportion of a population in a given age group achieving at least a fixed level of proficiency in functional (a) literacy and (b) numeracy skills, by sex.

Students in Liberia. © GPE/Kelley Lynch

Defining what we mean by literacy

It is when we examine the two key concepts to be measured within indicator 4.6.1 – proficiency in literacy and numeracy – that we also encounter some methodological challenges. For operational reasons, global literacy has often been restricted to the ability to read and write a simple statement, and has included some basic arithmetic skills (numeracy). However, this definition is far too simplistic to capture the complexity of these concepts, or the way people use their skills in daily life.

UNESCO has proposed a new definition of literacy that looks beyond the ability to read and write a simple sentence, and that captures an “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” UNESCO stresses the value of the skill, as well as the skill itself, arguing that: “Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

The key word is ‘functional’: the literacy and numeracy skills, combined, that people need as part of lifelong learning. While functional literacy and numeracy will mean different things in different countries and to different organizations, our own view is that they both involve a continuum of skills development that builds over time.

Agreeing a common threshold for literacy

Indicator 4.6.1 is defined as the percentage of youth (aged 15 to 24 years) and of adults (aged 15 years and older) who have achieved or exceeded a given level of proficiency in  literacy and  numeracy. The minimum proficiency level will be measured relative to new common scales that are currently being developed.

And here we meet some additional methodological challenges. The indicator can be calculated as the percentage of youth and adults who have achieved at least the minimum threshold of proficiency as defined for large-scale (representative sample) literacy and numeracy assessments. It can also be interpreted through as the use of a threshold that categorizes youth and adults as being below, at or above minimum proficiency levels.

At present, however, there are no common standards for this threshold that has been validated by the international community. Current data originate from agencies and organizations specialized in cross-national household-based surveys of youth and adult populations. This is an issue that the UIS has raised repeatedly.

Current sources of literacy data

One possible option to report on indicator 4.6.1 involves the use of skills assessment surveys of the adult population, such as the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the Skills Towards Employment and Productivity (STEP) measurement program along with  national adult literacy and numeracy surveys. Only PIAAC measures both skills although STEP, which measures literacy, includes a self-assessment for math. Both surveys use the same assessment framework, which opens the possibility of using a common scale for reporting. However, it is important to note that PIAC was originally designed to meet the needs of developed countries and can be complex to implement.    

As the custodian agency for indicator 4.6.1, the UIS is working with partners through Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) to expand the reporting options for countries. As shown in our recent paper, one option may be to expand the PIAAC framework and generate a set of tools to better reflect the situation and needs of countries with lower levels of literacy and numeracy.

Yet given the costs and complexity of administering these assessments, some countries may be better served by an adapted version of the Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Program (LAMP), which was originally developed by the UIS for low- and lower-middle-income countries. With Mini-LAMP, countries will have a streamlined version of the set of tools that have already been field tested in 10 countries. They would also have more options and flexibility in implementing the assessment in order to meet their specific needs.

Finally, we must also consider the case of developing countries that lack the financial resources for monitoring. One option for these countries may be to produce annual model-based series estimates of national literacy skills distribution based on available information from skills surveys and various parameters related to the population distribution.

All of these options and more will be discussed by countries and partners at the next GAML meeting in October. In the meantime, the UIS will continue to develop the tools and strategies needed to produce quality data while reducing the technical and financial burden of reporting.

Where and how to find SDG 4 data

  • The Quick Guide to Education Indicators for SDG 4 describes the process of developing and producing the global monitoring indicators while explaining how they can be interpreted and used. This is a hands-on, step-by-step guide for anyone who is working on gathering or analyzing education data.
  • The SDG 4 Data Book: Global Education Indicators 2018 ensures that readers have the latest available data for the global monitoring indicators at their fingertips, and will be regularly updated.    
  • The SDG 4 Data Explorer displays data by country, region or year; by data source; and by sex, location and wealth. It allows users to explore the measures of equality that are crucial for the achievement of SDG 4. 
  • The SDG 4 Country Profiles present the latest available SDG 4 global indicators in charts and graphs that are easy to understand. For those who need quick facts on specific countries, this is the place to come.



This is the 7th in our series of blogs on the indicators for SDG 4.
In this series, read also: 

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About SDG 4 indicators…. But Didn’t Know Who or How – to Ask! 

Meet the SDG 4 Data: Measuring How Much Children Are Learning

Meet the SDG 4 Data: Preparing Children for Education

Meet the SDG 4 Data: Giving Youth the Skills They Need for the Job Market

Meet the SDG 4 Data: Skills for a Digital World

Meet the SDG 4 Data: Equal Access to All Levels of Education and Training for the Most Vulnerable People

Leave a comment