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Read the numbers right

india Updated: Jan 14, 2009 01:21 IST

In physics, work is said to be done when a force moves an object through a distance. Mere application of force does not constitute work. In elementary education, the massive infusion of funds, construction of schools, recruitment of teachers, teacher-training programmes, mid-day meals, provision of textbooks, and such other actions constitute building up of the ‘force’. So, is this force working against inertia to move education to a higher level? Is the education system in India now ‘working’?

It is often said that the impact of education takes a long time to show. In some ways, this is true since a school-going child becomes a productive contributor to the economy and society only after eight or ten years. But, we have already spent four years. What have we achieved? How to measure progress? What tools to use? How frequently to measure?

The Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) uses simple tools to measure learning at a very basic level. We test children even in Class V and above to see if they can read a Class II level text. We see if children in Class I can read paragraphs, and if they cannot, we check whether they can read simple words or letters. Our assessment of arithmetic is similar.

This simple-and-rapid form of testing, done annually in every rural district for the last four years, using over 20,000 volunteers, has indicated where change has occurred and where it has not. Tools that aim too high cannot capture the changes happening at the basic level under their radar. The simplicity of the tool enables Aser to capture even small
changes effectively.

But how good is the Aser technique? Perhaps comparing Aser results with other national-level measurements will help answer the question.

The NCERT conducted a mid-term assessment survey of learning outcomes of Class V children in 2007. It reports a ‘facility value’ for comprehension which is based on a child reading a ‘story’, reading questions based on it, and writing the answers. In ASER 2007, we recorded the number of children who could orally answer questions based on a Class II-level ‘story’ regardless of their reading ability and the class in which they studied. The numbers are quite close, considering that one test requires written answers and the other oral.

The second comparison is on female literacy. In ASER 2006, more than 550,000 women aged 17+, from over 16,000 villages, form the sample from practically all states and rural districts of India. The national rural female literacy percentage of 46.13 matches closely with ASER’s figure of 47.7 per cent women in the 17-80 age group being able to read at least simple sentences.

ASER 2006 showed a big jump in learning in Madhya Pradesh. Unfortunately, neither the MP government nor anyone else took
this improvement seriously. There were doubts about how good ASER was in measuring learning. ASER 2008 once again shows huge jumps in MP and Chhattisgarh and some improvement in other states. It shows no improvement at all in many states. ASER is not the platform to discuss what has caused the observed changes. We record that whatever force was applied has caused a movement against inertia. That indicates that something has ‘worked’. It is important to note where efforts have worked, where they have failed, and where there were no efforts. ASER provides evidence. If governments do not take serious note of it, they could be charged with dereliction of duty. Unfortunately, no one asks for resignations if children’s learning does not improve. It is time that we do.

(Madhav Chavan is CEO and President, Pratham)