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The Millennium Development Goal of universal primary-school completion has been successful. By 2011, 90 percent of countries had already met the goal; only 19 of 112 countries are unlikely to meet it by 2015. That is good news for international campaigns and government efforts to get more kids in school.

But meeting enrollment targets does not necessary improve education. In many countries on target to meet the schooling goal, only a small percentage of students actually meet minimal competency levels in reading, math, and science. As a result, many in the international education community are beginning to shift their focus from getting kids in school to making sure they learn while there.

In this paper, Amanda Beatty and Lant Pritchett document the current (slow) rate of improving on learning assessments. The average developing-country score on assessments is typically 100 to 200 points behind the OECD norm of 500. At business-as-usual progress, it would take a century or more for developing countries to reach current OECD levels. The goals have to be more ambitious. The authors explore some of the possibilities while stressing that overambitious goals could be counterproductive.