I was born January 1, 1961 to a working class family in a small town in the U.S. Midwest—a New Year’s baby. My parents weren’t concerned about whether I would finish high school, let alone the risk that I would graduate unable to read or do math well enough to participate fully in society. But UNESCO’s 2015 EFA Global Monitoring Report tells a different story for many children and their parents, even today. At the current rate of progress, it will be 2072 before all young people in lower and middle income countries achieve literacy.

(Image Credit: UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report)

That’s why, like so many others, I’m applauding the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, and especially, the ambitious fourth goal: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” The goals’ adoption this week makes me wonder: what will the prospects be for girls and boys born in 2016? How many will have all of the advantages of literacy come 2031? What’s clear is that a real, sustained commitment will be needed to achieve this ambitious goal, and early assessment of learning can play a critical role in ensuring success.

If governments, schools, and communities can deliver on the promise of learning for all children at all stages of their education over the next 15 years, a much higher proportion of these children should enter their adolescent and adult years as readers and critical thinkers. They’ll be capable of joining the workforce of the future, and of accessing and making sense of a variety of news, public health, economic, and scientific information to benefit their families, communities, and societies, or simply reading for leisure. Furthermore, as demonstrated through compelling evidence in UNESCO’s 2014 report “Sustainable Development Begins with Education,” improving learning at all stages of life will contribute to achieving the other sixteen Sustainable Development Goals. To take just two examples: having an educated mother saves young children’s lives, and education is, without question, a real poverty-buster.

If this goal is to be achieved, we’ll also be measuring the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals not by how many kids have attended or completed school, but rather, by how many are truly learning—and measurement of learning will start early and continue often. This means that parents, teachers, and decision-makers who are responsible for ensuring schools meet this challenge will know early on whether a child is acquiring the basic reading and math skills that serve as the foundation for all learning. And they’ll be able to provide further support to children who need it much sooner.

The People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network—a growing movement of civil society organizations who are implementing citizen-led assessments of learning—has proven that it can be done. Their recent call for an early grade reading indicator as part of the toolkit for measuring progress against the equitable learning goal is critical to ensuring that five or ten years from now, children born in 2016 are not left behind. The citizen-led assessments have devised a methodology that is low-cost, low-stakes, and inclusive. The results can be easily understood and used by teachers, parents, communities, and local leaders to identify learning gaps early so that they can all work together to remedy them.

There are also emerging opportunities for others to learn from the PAL Network’s experience. Already, UNICEF’s Multi-Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) is tapping into the experience of the citizen-led assessments to develop new household survey modules that governments could adopt for measuring children’s early learning, as well capturing more data about the actions that families are taking to support learning in their homes and in their communities.

If I don’t make it to 2031 to see what happens, perhaps a 2016 New Year’s baby will open this time capsule and judge whether we’ve all measured up to our promises to her— but hopefully she’ll be too busy reading something more fun or useful to her day-to-day life, fully confident that her future children, regardless of their socio-economic background, will have the same opportunity.

UPDATE: Our colleagues at the Inter-American Development Bank recently translated this post into Spanish for their Primeros Pasos blog.