Measuring Human Capital using Global Learning Data published in Nature, on March 10, 2021.

Press Release from Nature:

Education: Progress in learning may not increase with school enrolment

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.


Angrist, N., Djankov, S., Goldberg, P.K. and Patrinos, H.A., Measuring Human Capital using Global Learning Data. Nature (2021).

Abstract: Human capital—that is, resources associated with the knowledge and skills of individuals—is a critical component of economic development. Learning metrics that are comparable for countries globally are necessary to understand and track the formation of human capital. The increasing use of international achievement tests is an important step in this direction. However, such tests are administered primarily in developed countries, limiting our ability to analyse learning patterns in developing countries that may have the most to gain from the formation of human capital. Here we bridge this gap by constructing a globally comparable database of 164 countries from 2000 to 2017. The data represent 98% of the global population and developing economies comprise two-thirds of the included countries. Using this dataset, we show that global progress in learning—a priority Sustainable Development Goal—has been limited, despite increasing enrolment in primary and secondary education. Using an accounting exercise that includes a direct measure of schooling quality, we estimate that the role of human capital in explaining income differences across countries ranges from a fifth to half; this result has an intermediate position in the wide range of estimates provided in earlier papers in the literature. Moreover, we show that average estimates mask considerable heterogeneity associated with income grouping across countries and regions. This heterogeneity highlights the importance of including countries at various stages of economic development when analysing the role of human capital in economic development. Finally, we show that our database provides a measure of human capital that is more closely associated with economic growth than current measures that are included in the Penn world tables version 9.0 and the human development index of the United Nations.

Data Repository and Underlying Code:

Press release in Japanese:


More and more children all over the world are attending school, but what are the benefits?

Education: Progress in learning may not increase with school enrolment