For the last 10 years, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is being released in mid-January. The timing of the release of the report is important; it becomes public before the budget is finalised and before the annual work plans for elementary education for the next school year are completed. Based on the belief that decision making should be done based on evidence, ASER collects data between September and November and makes it available in January — all in the same school year.
Many key elements of the ASER survey are very different from the usual models of assessment seen in India or elsewhere. Western countries assess student learning in school. But in their case, all children are in school, all schools are registered with the government and their details are available on official lists. But our reality is different. We have growing numbers of private schools, many of which are not on official lists. While very high numbers of children are enrolled in school, not all are present in school every day. School attendance rates vary vastly across states. Although the numbers of un-enrolled children are small, they too need to be accounted for. In short, if we are seriously interested in finding out about all children, then there is no option but to go to the child’s home.
Who does ASER? Our policies and laws give high priority to community participation. ASER is a platform on which over 500 institutions come together each year. If you look at the ASER report, even cursorily, you will see a growing list of District Institute of Educational and Training (DIET) as the main participants in the initiative. In ASER 2014, 243 DIETs participated; that means half of India’s government teacher district-level training institutions were involved. Ironically, these are also the very institutions that also carry out the government’s periodic national achievement surveys. Time and again, principals of these institutions have stressed that the visits to children’s homes and to the village have proved to be beneficial in the capacity building of the young trainee teachers. More and more institutions of higher learning, from central universities to district colleges, are reaching out to ASER to participate.
Most assessments of student achievement in western countries are pen and paper tests. This makes sense for contexts where most children by Class 4 are able to read. Therefore, they can read questions, understand them and write answers. But in India, it does not make sense to administer written tests unless you can be sure that children can read. Reading must be assessed individually one on one. Yet again, by emulating what other countries do, the educational establishment in India may have missed the crisis in reading because pen-paper tests make this problem “invisible”. ASER has contributed significantly in bringing the issue of reading to the centre of the national discussions in education. Those who follow ASER closely and with an open mind know that over the years, ASER has focused not only on reading but also assessed comprehension, problem solving and tasks related to every computation. As people who want to help children progress, it is important that we work on mechanisms for understanding our children that are based in our own realities.
How has the government responded? Over the past 10 years, we see significant shifts in policy and practice. For example, the planning and budget allocation process for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan introduced a line item several years ago for learning enhancement in primary grades. The Centre set aside funds for a reading cell in the NCERT as early as in 2007 in response to ASER findings although that initiative did not go far. The 12th five-year plan put a great deal of focus on achieving basic learning outcomes and on measurement. There is more response and action at the state level. Every state today conducts state-level assessments and several major states have begun to assess reading too. Even more importantly, several states are undertaking initiatives to improve basic reading and arithmetic levels of children in primary grades. These moves are positive and promising.
ASER presents a different paradigm of engagement and participation, assessment and accountability that has not been seen in India before. Standard tests give something to the policy-makers, but teachers or parents cannot figure out what the results mean in terms of the action. There are experts who want to keep knowledge exclusive and then there are efforts like ASER whose purpose is to open up the methods and measures for generating evidence to the masses and demystify “learning” so that many more people can engage and work to improve it.
We have achieved close to universal enrolment. We now need to go beyond schooling to learning and take on the challenge of helping every child learn. As Carol Bellamy, former global executive director of Unicef said three years ago, “education is far too important to be left only to educationists”.
Rukmini Banerji is director of ASER Centre/Pratham
The views expressed by the author are personal