Module A3: Education Indicators and Data Analysis

2. The concept of indicators

2.1 What is an indicator?

An indicator can be a number, an observation or a signal that gives us a reliable and unbiased understanding about an object, a situation, a phenomenon, a happening, a motion, a devel- opment process, etc.

it can be a simple number, a percentage, a ratio or rate, a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, a piece of data, or a score.

Broadly speaking, indicators indicate. Indicators enhance our understanding of situations and issues by transforming raw data into meaningful information. Indicators can help us to identify problems and issues, and to define targets and strategies, policies and plans to reach those tar- gets. When used to set benchmarks, indicators can serve as a guide to monitor progress toward achieving a goal. indicators can help us to make rational and informed decisions about how to reach the targets on time, to decide how to solve problems, and to evaluate progress and outcomes. indica- tors can, therefore, act as “measuring rods” for comparing situations over time and between different localities, population groups, levels of education or sexes. indicators can provide a more objective basis for measuring progress towards targets, and are essential for any monitoring system.

The concept of using indicators in the education system was clearly articulated by Oakes (1986) who said, “An education indicator tells something about the performance or health of the education sys- tem.” This concept applies equally well to a school or the management of education in a local area.

understanding the health of an education system requires more than just a simple count of the num- ber of schools, students and teachers. This is illustrated in example 1 above. This table shows that the number of enrolments in a country increased from 325,781 to 367,061 between 2003 and 2007. This was a total increase of 41,280 students over a period of four years. Year-on-year, this represents an average annual increase of about 10,000 students, or around 3 per cent. These figures indicate steady, positive growth in enrolment – this is good.

if however we look at the net enrolment ratios (neR) over the same five-year period (on the bottom line of the table in example 1), we can see the trend is less positive. There is only a very slight improve- ment in the enrolment ratio from 71 per cent to 73 per cent. if this trend continues, the net enrolment ratio will probably only reach about 77 per cent by 2015 (the target year for achieving eFA goals). With an enrolment ratio below 80 per cent, this would mean the country may fail to achieve the goal of uni- versal primary education, unless major efforts are made to expand school capacities and enrolment.

This comparison shows that one set of figures, such as the 3 per cent annual growth in enrolment, may only tell one side of a story. An indicator such as the net enrolment ratio gives a more balanced picture of the state of primary education and about the prospects for achieving the EFA goal.

There are six EFA goals. These goals cover different priority areas in education: early childhood care and education; universal primary education; lifelong learning; adult literacy; gender equality in education; and quality of education. For a comprehensive picture of progress, achievement and shortfalls in all six EFA goals, we need a wide range of education indicators (see Sections 4 and 5 below and Annex 1 on EFA indicators).

in Figure 1, we can see another example of why it is important to use multiple indicators to measure progress towards EFA goals. in this example, the EFA indicator of Gender Parity index (GPi) has been used to measure gender equality in primary education (see Section 5 and Annex 1 for explanations of GPi). The GPi for the net enrolment ratio in a primary school is approaching the value of 1, which indicates near gender parity in enrolment for girls and boys. But the GPi for survival rate to Grade 5 may show that more boys than girls continue to Grade 5. either of the two GPis when used alone may thus provide a different picture of gender equality in this school, but together they provide a fuller and more balanced understanding of the situation.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, or like the famous indian fable of several blind men feeling an elephant, using different indicators to look at an object or a phenomenon from different angles can help us to develop a better understanding of the whole object or phenomenon. This is a fundamental principle in practicing informed decision-making using indicators.  At the same time, one must also be wary of the dan- ger of using the wrong indicator to assess a specific aspect or issue. These are discussed in Section 6.


  • Do’s
    • Always try to use different indicators to view an object or a phenomenon from different angles.
    • Select indicators that can reliably describe the phenomenon in a factual and unbiased manner.
    • Piece together the different views to constitute a fuller understanding of the object orphenomenon in order to inform decisions.
  • Don’ts
    • Try not to base your understanding and decisions on a single indicator.
    • Do not select indicators that are conceptually irrelevant to the phenomenon, difficultto produce for lack of or incomplete data, or are difficult to interpret.
    • Avoid selecting and using overlapping indicators that illustrate the same thing, in the sameway, and with the same results.


Activity 1

Based on each indicator and figure below, describe the performance of a school by summarizing your interpretation results in the space on the right. If you cannot provide a meaningful interpretation, please write down other information you might need in order to understand the performance or health of the school.

Indicator and figure

Interpretation (or additional indicators and data needed)

Number of students = 300

Share of female students in total = 30%

Net enrolment ratio = 78%

Number of class room = 8

Average score in examinations on mathematics = 80

Overall summary understanding of the health or performance

of this school:



Activity 2

Reflect on your own experiences and talk to other people about the kind of data, information and/or indicators that may be used to understand the health or performance of the education system. Then, answer the following questions:

  1. Which indicator(s) can reliably tell us about the health of the education system? Why?
  2. For each indicator identified in Question 1, please specify which aspect(s) of education the indicator describes? How reliable and effective is the indicator in describing this aspect of education?
  3. What other aspects of education need appropriate indicators? Please give examples.
  4. Which indicators can be used to describe these other aspects of education?

Comments are closed.