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Pratham's ASER Report 2013

The Annual Status of Education Report, ASER, is the only annual assessment of basic reading and arithmetic skills done conducted in every rural district of India.
BY Savitri Bobde |   17-02-2014
Pratham: Every Child in School and Learning Well...
The Annual Status of Education Report, ASER, is the only annual assessment of basic reading and arithmetic skills conducted in every rural district of India. Every year since 2005, the survey has assessed close to 700,000 children in the age group of 5-16 to paint a picture of basic learning levels and schooling status. While the picture for enrolment has been bright since 2006, the same cannot be said about learning. The 2013 figures indicate that approximately 47% children in grade V cannot read a grade II level text. This is worse for arithmetic. About 48% of children in Std V cannot do a two-digit subtraction problem with borrowing. This was about the same in 2012.

Before ASER, everyone knew India’s education system needed more but did not know just how much more. The ASER is released every year in January and much discussion about the results at the national level, as well as at the state level, follows - some constructive and some lost in the rhetoric of questioning what is education etc. Irrespective of that, few would say ASER (असर)has not been true to its name of creating an impact at all levels.

‘Assessments’ have traditionally been the domain of experts. But parents around the world, educated or not, assess what is best for their child. If Indian parents are spending their hard-earned money to send their children to private school or tuitions as a way out of the poverty trap, ASER provides a tool to understand if their efforts are leading to the desired outcomes, albeit at a basic level.

Over the years, ASER has been successful in pushing forward the agenda for measurable learning outcomes and actionable evidence. While this impact is tangible at the policy level, ASER has also managed to leave a bigger mark at the grassroots level. Among others, organizations across six countries in Asia and Africa have adopted and adapted ASER to their context to conduct national assessment surveys.

Nine years of ASER is long enough to start looking at the entire process and treat it as a case study to explore some of the reasons for its impact, many of which are often not talked or written about. These aspects are important because they help us understand some things that are important to anybody trying to mobilise and influence policy at all levels for a worthy cause.[1]

ASER’s biggest strength is its balance between simplicity and complexity/robustness. ASER is a kit of simple assessment tools, instructions and recording formats. It can be downloaded from the Internet/ printed and administered by anybody. The results are also fairly simple to interpret and act on. This ensures that all of us can engage with the process of testing and result-finding. The simplicity of the resulting message is as important to the impact. All this leads to the fruitful engagement of parents (illiterate or literate), government teachers, block and district education officers - who are actually closest to the children we are trying to educate.

The Report’s simplicity is also reflective in its citizen-led model of implementation. Engaging citizen groups in data collection has contributed to the cost-effective scalability of the exercise. At the same time, it is robust and technically complex in its sampling, tool development procedures and quality control framework.

Another aspect of ASER that cannot be ignored is the number of young people involved in the exercise. The average age of ASER team members and volunteers, who carry out the survey in each state, is below 30. These are the same people who often go on to pursue other endeavours in life, applying the basic principles of evidence and action in their work. This to my mind is intangible but powerful in it's impact, nonetheless. They are trained in a fixed procedural framework - a framework that was created through experience and theory. At the same time, these young minds are encouraged to experiment and innovate to ensure a better survey every year. Some of ASER’s best practices have been a result of this combination.

Another contribution to this impact has been the perseverance of doing it each year since 2005. Often education assessments are done every few years because that is enough to provide a learning trend, but it is not enough to make people to realize there is a crisis that needs urgent attention, like it should be-  - that if we don’t do something about it, every 4-5 years, a whole cohort of children would have already passed primary school without gaining basic skills and in another decade, into the workforce.

Last but not the least, is the adaptability of ASER. ASER has very consciously ensured that each country that has wanted to replicate something similar has developed something within the larger philosophy of ASER (a citizen-led initiative collecting information on children’s learning which provides actionable evidence) but has been necessarily altered to their context. Everything from sampling (urban or rural), assessment tools (in their content) and implementation (training, quality control) has been organically developed. Each country can set standards that it wants to strive for and then evaluate its performance against those standards (which are often completely different from other countries, especially developed countries).

For a detailed picture of ASER’s impact, visit our website: www.asercentre.org


[1]Just to state that I think it is as important to understand that trajectories of impact always have elements of randomness and luck that cannot be worked towards. These have not been written about in this article.

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