“Our contribution purely depends on our consciousness and our willingness to support those in need, to show vulnerability and accept the support of others, to share without expecting the credit, to give it our all and allow our hard work to decide the outcome, to understand that control can only be achieved with a shared responsibility.”
ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) 2018 is a nation-wide household survey that provides a snapshot of children’s schooling and learning for a representative sample of children across rural India. Children in the age group 3 to 16 are surveyed to find out their enrollment status in school or pre-school. Children in the age group 5 to 16 are assessed one-on-one to understand their basic reading and arithmetic abilities. ASER continues to be the only national source of information about children’s foundational skills across the country. The methodology and content of ASER 2018 continues the pattern followed each year for the first decade of its existence (2005-2014), during which ASER reached almost all rural districts in India and generated district, state, and national estimates of foundational reading and arithmetic abilities of children in the age group 5 to 16 years. A national survey was not conducted in 2015. Starting its second decade of existence in 2016, ASER surveys now use Census 2011 as the sampling frame. In addition, in 2016 ASER changed to an alternate-year cycle, conducting the ‘basic’ ASER in one year and using a different lens to examine new aspects of children’s learning the following year. Thus, ASER 2016 followed the ‘basic’ model, sampling children age 3 to 16 and testing reading, arithmetic, and English for children age 5 to 16. In 2017 it conducted the first alternate-year design known as ASER ‘Beyond Basics’, focusing on youth in the 14 to 18 age group in 28 districts across India. ASER 2017 inquired about what youth are currently doing and aspiring to, in addition to assessing their foundational skills and their ability to apply these to everyday tasks. In 2018, ASER returns once again to the ‘basic’ model. A total of 546,527 children in the age group 3 to 16 years were surveyed this year. ASER 2018 is the thirteenth ASER report.
The Testing Process:
The testing process addresses ASER’s central question - are children acquiring foundational reading and arithmetic skills? The process is designed to record the highest level that each child can comfortably achieve. That is, rather than testing grade-level competencies, ASER is a ‘floor test’ focusing on basic learning. Testing is conducted at home, rather than in schools, so as to include out of school children and children attending different types of schools. All children in the 5-16 age group in a sampled household are tested using the same tools, irrespective of age, grade, or schooling status. Children are assessed on basic reading and simple arithmetic. In 2018, ASER included a ‘bonus tool’ that tested children in the 14-16 age group on their ability to apply basic arithmetic skills to some everyday tasks.
The Need to Realize its Importance:
ASER helps the education system (especially rural) of our country to reflect where we actually stand in terms of basics. It was disheartening to observe that this report which comprehensively showcases the alarming educational scenario wasn’t considered worthy enough to be extensively and explicitly discussed on significant NEWS channels except a few. Political parties which are busy framing new agendas and welcoming new faces to justify their significance to voters do not seem worried about the need to ponder on the conclusions of this report. ASER 2018 gives the torchbearers and policy makers of the educational arena, a wakeup call. I fear if we do not respond and make amends as per the situation, the repercussions would be worse. I would also advise the urban schools to take this report as a reality check and work towards the improvement of basics and fundamentals before leaping towards greater goals.
The Constant Struggle between Curriculum and Performance:
Now let us understand the report in detail. Although ASER does not analyze the causes of poor or improved learning levels, it is but natural to correlate changes with probable causes. Passage and implementation of the Right to Education Act in the 2009-10 period has to be correlated with the decline of subsequent reading ability at the national level and in most states. The learning levels of children are indicators of effectiveness or productivity of the education system. Anyone looking at the levels in 2008 and 2018 would conclude that its productivity is down by nearly 9 percentage points, or about 18 percent. As we have noted in previous reports, while the productivity of the government school system has declined overall, the effectiveness of the private schools has not changed as dramatically. In 2008, 68% Std V children in private schools could read a Std II level text. This went down to 61% in 2012 and then went up again to 65% by 2018.
The important thing to note is that in 2008, the percentage of Std II level readers in government schools was at 53%, or 15 percentage points lower than the 68% children in private schools. By 2018, this gap has widened to 21 percentage points on a national scale. At the same time, the proportion of children enrolled in private schools in rural India has gone up from 22% in 2008 to 30% in 2018. There is no doubt that thanks to the poor reading ability at Std V, the overall ability to deal with textbooks in higher standards is that much poorer as the curriculum becomes increasingly ambitious and texts become complex in more than one way. The highest level of reading that ASER measures is at Std II. So, we do not know if those who learn to read by Std II improve their skill with age or additional years in the school.
The declining productivity of schools leads to a substantially smaller number of students learning to read basic texts by the time they reach Std V every year. But, the fact that the proportion of 'readers' grows 1.4 or 1.5 times by the time they reach Std VIII means that as children continue to use books, more children learn to read fluently even if not at the desired level. It also suggests that while efforts have to be made to ensure that 100% children are reading fluently by the time they reach Std V, efforts to improve reading ability should be continued even after Std V. As in reading, it is apparent from the report that the proportion of children who can solve division sums (and hence, we conclude, all basic arithmetic operations) almost doubles between Std V and VIII in government schools. In private schools too, this proportion increases but it does not quite double. Every year about 4 to 6 percentage point more children in each cohort learn to do division. But, between 2008 and 2018, the proportion of ‘division solvers’ in Std V in government schools went down from 34% to 22.7%.
Further, as we saw in ASER 2017 ‘Beyond Basics’, only 15.4% of young adults had the ability to do simple financial calculations involving computation of simple interest. This means that not only are we not creating a sufficiently literate population, but that most of our population is functionally illiterate. The fact that we are seeing some improvement in learning outcomes now, is a welcome change, assuming that the improvement will continue. But, first of all, the positive change is slow and uncertain. It has to be understood that we are struggling even with basic literacy and numeracy.
Some Important Questions:
ASER 2018 Report raises some important questions. We are far from becoming an educated nation. Can our country take an educational quantum leap? But, which way are we to jump? Should we leap-frog over some curricular goals? Do we have different options in terms of the goals we want to achieve? Or, are we going to continue on the path of linear improvement of the system and all of its components?
These are difficult questions to answer. We have a system of education and we are dependent on it although it is dysfunctional to say the least. There is a curriculum - it expects teachers to teach and children to learn. The government is talking about unburdening the children by cutting down the curriculum. It sounds like a good idea. But is it? Will the curriculum be cut horizontally, lowering standards in each subject? Or vertically, by dropping certain subjects altogether? Will the curriculum for the various competitive entrance examinations be cut down to half? That seems unlikely given the need to select 'the best' candidates out of hundreds of thousands who compete. If that curriculum is not reduced but the school curriculum is, some children will effectively have to choose a watered down curriculum, while the others go for the higher level of education through coaching classes for competitive examinations.
Rukmini Banerji in her piece “Behind the Headlines” suggests that acknowledging and accepting a problem is the most important step. It is now well recognized that learning levels are low and that they are not changing much as years go by. In fact, for a few years, we even saw distinct declining patterns. What is also known is that although children continue to add years of schooling to their portfolio, for many, learning trajectories remain relatively flat. As Pritchett (2017) puts it, "if a learning profile is flat, schooling only measures ‘time served’ and not ‘skills gained’. The next step beyond acknowledging and recognizing is understanding; which in turn requires going behind the headlines. The World Development Report 2018 argues that when issues of learning are taken seriously, and learning becomes a high priority, then progress can be made towards solving the learning crisis.
She states that as a country, we have acknowledged that we have a crisis of learning on hand. Now it is time to understand the contours of the problem and take decisions accordingly, so that year on year there is progress. The first step to lift up the learning trajectory of children is to ensure foundational skills. To enable millions of children to learn how to read, to comprehend and to calculate we need a massive ‘catch up’ effort. This ‘catch up’ needs a ‘push forward’ and not a ‘hold back’. We need to believe that the real right to education is not only in terms of years of schooling but ‘value added’ in terms of learning; first foundational skills, then higher level capabilities and knowledge, and finally to being able to cope with a dynamic and changing wide world beyond.
Wilima Wadhwa in ‘Equity in learning?’ points out that the debate has always been around learning levels and whether they have moved up or down, but what about equity? In the context of education, we can think about inequality across three dimensions. First, we can use the lens of school type to examine differences in outcomes. Second, we can look at the entire distribution of learning outcomes. And, third, we can use the lens of geographic location to look at inequality across states. The all India figures move slowly, but hide a lot of variation across states. Just a few days ago, the second amendment to the RTE did away with the no-detention policy in Std V and Std VIII, giving states flexibility to detain students if they did not pass the relevant examinations. But, as states embark on achieving the goals of RTE 2.0, they must ensure that all children participate and gain from the process.
I definitely appreciate the comprehensive effort but we still have a long way to go if we have to answer the above raised questions. Education is the pivot around which the future of any nation revolves. Piling up reports and unanswered concerns can prove dangerous to our nation. What I believe is; ASER and its findings should be the major concern of the present government and those aspiring political powers. This should be the agenda and focus of Prime Time NEWS reports and discussions. It is time for us to wake up as a country and work together to give our future generation better educational scenario which fosters basic and fundamental clarity, experimentation and research more than questions and concerns.