Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
Shifting from Schooling to Learning: How ASER Shaped India’s Education Discourse and Policy by Measuring Learning
This blog series reviews major policy reforms and interventions to showcase real-life examples of the ‘five actions to accelerate progress in learning’ identified by Pritchett, Newman & Silberstein (2022). In this second blog, I discuss how India’s education landscape was transformed due to the identification of the learning crisis under ASER, aligning to the second action of ‘measure learning regularly, reliably, and relevantly’ under the five actions.
While most children in India were enrolled in primary and elementary schools in the 1990s, just over a half of the population in India was literate (Banerji, 2021). It was perplexing to understand why, after spending more than eight years in school, citizens could not even read.
Based on efforts by the Pratham Education Foundation (a civil society organisation founded in 1995 to explore this question), the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) surveys were created. ASER is now the largest citizen-led household survey of children and is still the only survey of learning in India that is representative at the district, state, and national levels. ASER has been very successful at illuminating the learning crisis, bringing learning to the forefront of policy and education discourse nationally and internationally, and inspiring the creation of interventions that promote foundational learning.
Most of India’s children were enrolled in primary and elementary schools by the 1990s (Government of India, 2018). While most children were in schools, just over a half of India’s population was literate in this time period. This was confusing: after spending more than eight years in school, how could citizens not even read?
In 1995, a civil society organisation called the Pratham Education Foundation was established and focused on the question of schooling and learning in India (Banerji, 2021). Pratham recognised that in order to help children learn in school, we must first measure what children have already learned. Over time, this resulted in the development of the largest citizen-led household survey of children that is still the only representative survey of learning levels in India today: the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER; Banerji, 2021). ASER has been very successful at highlighting the learning crisis, bringing learning to the forefront of policy and education discourse nationally and internationally, and for inspiring the creation of interventions to strengthen foundational learning (Banerji, 2021).
In 1990-91, the gross enrolment ratios in India’s primary schools (standards1 I-V) and elementary schools (standards I-VIII) were 83.8 percent and 78.6 percent respectively (Government of India, 2018). In 2000-01, gross enrolment had increased in India’s primary and elementary schools to 95.7 percent and 81.6 percent respectively. Overall, most children were attending schools. In contrast, learning levels remained low. Literacy rates for ages seven and above (one of the few nationally representative measures of learning available at the time) in 1991 were 52.2 percent and in 2001 were 64.8 percent respectively. With more than 80 percent of the population in school, and literacy being one of the foundational elements taught in school, it was surprising that a significant proportion of the population still could not read.
About the annual status of education report
With questions arising on the ‘quality’ of education being imparted in schools, it soon became clear that there were no regular and reliable district-level measures of basic learning outcomes with which to answer these questions (Banerji, 2021). Simultaneously, evidence was needed with which to understand the status of education and to take informed action.
Having started work in 1995, the Pratham Education Foundation tackled issues of learning in school by trying to identify what children did know (Banerji, 2021). The organisation started to do this by trying to determine the literacy levels of students based on whether they could identify letters, read words, read sentences, or read paragraphs, and the numeracy levels of students based on whether they could identify single-digit numbers, identify double-digit numbers, perform double digit subtraction (with carrying), or divide by a single digit.
Almost a decade later in 2005, this measurement of literacy and numeracy became formally known as the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER): a citizen-led household-based survey of children’s learning with the goal of covering all of India’s 600-plus districts in a reliable manner that is representative at the district, state, and national levels. Since then, ASER has been reporting on foundational literacy and numeracy for the elementary school age group either every year or every two years and is the first and largest to do so in India. ASER reaches between 500,000 to 700,000 children each year, with the survey being conducted by 25,000 volunteers from 500 partner institutions annually. Since 2008, ASER has been an autonomous unit within the Pratham network.
ASER has many unique qualities and contributions that make it so powerful (Banerji, 2021). Firstly, the surveys measure foundational learning, where foundational learning comprises the basic skills all children are expected to have after the first few years of school that are prerequisites for more advanced learning during the rest of the schooling period. Secondly, the survey is conducted orally and individually with each child. This is key considering that children who are not literate cannot be assessed with a written test, where written tests are usually the norm because they are easier to conduct at scale. Thirdly, the survey is designed in a simple, cost effective, and scalable manner. By having a simple tool that is administered by volunteers who have received 2-3 days of training by master trainers (purely citizen-led), ASER is cost-effective and easy to scale, which is imperative for a country as large as India and in resource constrained settings. Lastly, due to the simplicity of the tool and the citizen-led nature of ASER, awareness and demand for learning in schools is promoted among parents and community members, which further puts pressure on increasing learning in school. Overall, ASER has been very effective in its design and relevance to the problem and the context.
Illuminating the learning crisis
When ASER was launched, there were no measurements of learning levels in the early grades of primary school, meaning that students would automatically progress to the next grade even if they had not mastered the necessary prerequisites to succeed in the next grade (Banerji, 2021). ASER challenged that concept by illuminating the magnitude of the learning crisis that was present in India. The tasks on the ASER test aligned well with the expected skill levels of students completing standard 2 or starting standard 3 according to most state curricula in India (Banerji, 2019).
Every year, ASER has highlighted that learning levels are low, and that learning trajectories have even declined in some years (Banerji, 2019).
- In 2005, 35 percent of all students 7 to 14 years old in rural India could not read a simple paragraph, and 41 percent could not do two-digit subtraction (ASER, 2006).
- In 2010, 41 percent of all students 7 to 14 years old in rural India could not read a simple paragraph, and 47.8 percent could not do two-digit subtraction (ASER, 2011).
- In 2016, 57.6 percent of standard 3 students could not read a standard 1 level simple paragraph, and 72.5 percent of standard 3 students could not do two-digit subtraction (ASER, 2017).
- In 2018, 55.5 percent of standard 3 students could not read a standard 1 level simple paragraph, and 71.9 percent of standard 3 students could not do two-digit subtraction (ASER, 2019).
These show a fairly similar picture of learning since the inception of ASER measurements, with the takeaway being that learning is very low and not improving much.
In addition to highlighting that foundational literacy and numeracy skills are shockingly low and that learning trajectories are ‘flat’, the ASER results have also brought to the forefront other issues. These include the presence of a wide range of learning levels in each grade, which is visible through the ASER reports and demonstrates why teaching in an Indian classroom is so complex. These also include the issue of the curricula targeting only the top distribution of learners, not catering to students who have not yet mastered foundational literacy and numeracy skills and are hence falling behind (Banerji, 2019).
Inspired actions and interventions
Results from ASER have had far-ranging impact, not just in India but globally as well. At a local scale, the low learning levels identified by ASER have resulted in the creation of locally relevant and highly effective interventions that address low learning.
For example, Pratham has designed the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) programme in response to low learning and the wide spread of learners in the classroom (Banerji, 2021). This programme has been largely effective and is seeing uptake in other developing countries around the world.
At the policy level, ASER results have been used in parliamentary meetings, national economic surveys, planning commission documents, and have had a broader impact on the focus on foundational learning in national education policy.
In the measurement space, the example ASER has set has been widely recognised and praised around the world. The ASER approach has since been adopted in numerous countries across three continents: in Pakistan as ‘ASER Pakistan’, in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) as ‘Uwezo’, in Mali as ‘Beekungo’, in Senegal as ‘Jangandoo’, and in Mexico as ‘Medicion Independiente de Aprendizajes’. Collectively, the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network has been formed as a community for the countries assessing foundational learning through citizen-led assessments. Part of the credit for this expansion of citizen-led measurement of foundational learning in the ASER format is due to the openness of the ASER initiative: since the onset, ASER has kept its tools open-access, has widely shared the approach and resources for conducting the survey with the public, and has encouraged others to use its framework, making it easy for others to adapt the approach into their own contexts (Banerji, 2021).
What can we learn?
ASER has had remarkable impact on the education sector in India and beyond. Established in a time when the primary assumption was that getting children into schools (inputs) would automatically result in children learning (outputs), ASER not only questioned this assumption but also highlighted the flaws in it.
Year on year, ASER has demonstrated just how deep-rooted the learning crisis is in India (much to the surprise of national stakeholders). With an unwavering commitment to their goal of helping the people of India understand how much children are learning and to foster accountability, ASER ultimately managed to pivot conversations from schooling (which in itself was a crucial first component) to learning in school, resulting in the design of innovative interventions to address the learning crisis, changing national discourse and policy agenda to foundational learning, and the expansion of similar efforts in other developing countries around the world.
ASER and its parent organisation Pratham are now among the most widely recognised names in the education sector globally and have been crucial to underpinning the global emphasis on the learning crisis and on solutions to address low learning.
This case shows the importance of measuring learning regularly, reliably, and relevantly, and to design measurements that are simple and easy to understand. This case yields the following policy implications:
- Investigate policy assumptions using rigorous data. ASER was born out of questions surrounding schooling and learning to explore whether schooling resulted in learning. This is one of the reasons ASER was so important: it provided the evidence with which to evaluate a crucial assumption, and ultimately was able to decipher the flaw in the assumption that would have been detrimental if not noticed.
- Keep assessments simple and easy to understand. One of the reasons behind ASER’s success was the simplicity of the tool and the ease of interpreting its results. Realising that much of the population in India was uneducated and unaware of what children should be learning, ASER kept its tools and results very simple. This allowed even the layperson to understand key benchmarks and to foster accountability from the community level, while also allowing the tool to be easily administered with low cost.
- Assessments do not have to be expensive to be effective. The ASER tool is low-cost and scalable, which was an important consideration given the survey’s goal of being representative at the district, state and national levels amidst the large size and population of India. Part of this is the use of volunteers to administer the test (citizen-led) and that very few resources (only a few printouts per volunteer) are required to administer the test. This is part of the reason behind ASER being able to continue collecting and publishing data regularly, making it a reliable and household name.
ASER. 2006. Annual Status of Education Report (2005): Rural. Available at: https://img.asercentre.org/docs/Publications/ASER%20Reports/ASER_2005/aserfullreport2005.pdf
ASER. 2011. Annual Status of Education Report (2010): Rural. Available at: https://img.asercentre.org/docs/Publications/ASER%20Reports/ASER_2010/ASERReport2010.pdf
ASER. 2017. Annual Status of Education Report (2016): Rural. Available at: https://img.asercentre.org/docs/Publications/ASER%20Reports/ASER%202016/aser_2016.pdf
ASER. 2019. Annual Status of Education Report (2018): Rural. Available at: https://img.asercentre.org/docs/ASER%202018/Release%20Material/aserreport2018.pdf
Banerji, R. 2019. Behind the Headlines (ASER 2018). RISE Programme Blog. Available at: https://riseprogramme.org/blog/behind-the-headlines_ASER2018
Banerji, R. 2021. Learning for All: Lessons from ASER and Pratham in India on the Role of Citizens and Communities in Improving Children’s Learning. In: Ra, S., Jagannathan, S., Maclean, R. (eds) Powering a Learning Society During an Age of Disruption. Education in the Asia-Pacific Region: Issues, Concerns and Prospects, vol 58. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-16-0983-1_13
Government of India. 2018. Education Statistics at a Glance. Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of School Education & Literacy, Statistics Division, New Delhi. Available at: https://www.education.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/statistics-new/ESAG-2018.pdf
- 1Grades are called ‘standards’ in India. In this blog, standards and grades are used interchangeably.
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