Evidence-based policies are a must for improving learning levels in schools
For more than a decade now, the release of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has become a regular feature of the calendar of the country. The Annual Status of Education Report which becomes available in the middle of January each year outlines the current status of schooling and learning in rural India. While the headlines from the report get widely discussed, the actual process of how the report comes together year after year is less known. Perhaps that is the most valuable contribution that ASER has made, not just to developing a stronger culture of measurement and evidence in India, but also for broadening the understanding of what needs to be done for improving children’s learning in India.
It is widely accepted that the worldwide move to universal schooling has happened not only because governments provided educational facilities but also because parents and communities wanted their children to go to school. Over time, the combined efforts of governments and citizens have led to the high enrolment rates we see in many countries today. Learning from this experience, if we are to move beyond “every child in school” to “every child learning well”, then this shift needs to be given high priority inside schools. At the same time, in the world outside schools, there is a need for widespread understanding and engagement of people in supporting “learning for all” if it is to become a reality.
From its inception, the design of ASER was based on two key principles. First, ensuring that the measurement was appropriate for conditions in India. Second, the architecture of ASER also took into account that one of the objectives of the exercise was to broad base participation and support for “every child in school and learning well”. Although the entire exercise is facilitated by Pratham, in each rural district in India, a local organisation or institution takes the responsibility of carrying out ASER in their district.
This year, over 237 government teacher training colleges and close to 200 colleges and universities have participated in conducting the survey. For young people who have graduated from school and entered college (“successful” graduates of the school system), ASER provides an opportunity to be part of a rigorous, nationwide effort. After two or three days of hands-on training, a pair of young people go to a randomly sampled village. The experience of finding their way to the village, of spending time in the community, of discussions with parents and others about the status of education, of observing how children read or do maths — all add to a local and contextual understanding not only of the problem but also of possible solutions that are needed.
ASER is based on a representative sample of all children. School based surveys, especially those focused on government schools, miss out on three types of children: those who are not enrolled at all; those who go to other kinds of schools; and those who are absent from school on that day. The only place to find “all” children is in the home. Hence, ASER is a household survey, which means that surveyors spend most of their time in the community where they interact extensively with families and children.
The assessment tasks in ASER are simple. They aim to assess foundational skills like reading and arithmetic. It is obvious that without a strong foundation, it is not possible to progress further in the education system. The ASER reading tasks are like the first steps in learning to read: recognising letters, reading words, a short paragraph or a longer story. All of these are done orally with each child one-on-one. (Since there is a significant proportion of children in primary school who cannot read fluently, giving them a pen-paper test does not make sense.) Not only does this assessment indicate how far a child has come in terms of her acquisition of foundational skills, but the measures are transparent and clear for an ordinary person to absorb. The simplicity of the ASER tools, of the process and the ease with which the findings can be understood, helps in allowing a broad cross section of people to be involved in carrying out ASER and in comprehending the results.
A good example of assessment to action comes from teacher training colleges. Over the years, many teacher training colleges have participated in ASER (especially government teacher training colleges at district-level) The exposure of young teacher trainees (especially from the DIETs) to the ASER experience has led many of these institutions to include time-bound modules for improving children’s reading and math as part of their pre-service curriculum.
Unlike school education, where there are nationwide efforts like ASER and NAS, many other social sectors do not have outcome tracking being done on a routine and periodic basis and certainly not by citizens. In fact, the decade plus experiences of ASER show that there is capacity for evaluation and outcome tracking at the district level. But the metrics, methods and mechanisms for measurement must be such that a wide range of individuals and institutions can get engaged. To create a culture of measurement, exercises like ASER can be included in college coursework. Not only do young people get a taste of the realities of their context but they also learn how to collect and analyse data systematically and learn how to apply it for action.
Understanding the problem is the first step towards finding a solution. More than 25,000 people each year participate in ASER. It is because of their hard work, which is done systematically and in a timely way, that India can have the ASER report ready as an input into the next year’s education plans. The ASER approach has now been adapted and adopted in 14 countries across South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
ASER 2018 will be released today. Once the headlines have been digested, it is important to work hard to translate assessment into action. Immediate planning is needed for how evidence can guide policy making and practice for making “every child in school and learning well” a reality.
Rukmini Banerji is CEO of Pratham Education FoundationThe views expressed are personal