Pratham revamps ASER for deeper insights

Seeks new ways to deal with unremittingly low learning levels among Indian children

Pratham revamps ASER for deeper insights

Anjali Puri New Delhi
On a chilly morning last week, there were excited shouts of loading kar rahi hai (It's loading) rising off a mat in Baljit Nagar, a garbage-strewn cluster of shanties near Anand Parbat industrial area in West Delhi. Factory workers' children jabbed away at the screen of a Google phone, trying to drag the requisite number of birds into a plane to make it fly. The maths-based game was one of many on EkStep Genie, a meta-app with lots of gamified apps, developed by software tycoon Nandan Nilekani's team. The smartphone belonged to Devyani Pershad, head of programme management at Pratham, an education NGO, which is piloting the app across the country. When Devyani took her phone back from the pupils, there was a collective sigh of disappointment.

Two decades after it began instructional programmes for poor children with the slogan, "Every child in school and learning well", and a decade after launching the Annual State of Education Report (ASER), the country's biggest non-governmental audit of elementary education in rural India, which is also the only annual national assessment of learning outcomes, Pratham is now exploring new approaches.

If one aspect is a blossoming affair with technology - the use of smartphones, memory cards, even text messages, to disseminate instructional material and to assess, another is an accelerated push to get parents, neighbours, college students, panchayat members and mohallas to care about learning outcomes. Third is a revamp of the widely-cited ASER, which has skipped a year, and will now change its parameters. While it will continue to be a national assessment carried out in homes, not at schools, ASER will focus, in rotation, on different age-groups of children, and develop new assessment tools for sharper and deeper understanding of learning levels. Secondary school students will be a priority in the coming years.

In the winter of 2015-2016, instead of being consumed by the mammoth task of collecting and collating data for ASER, typically released at a function every January, Pratham had 2,000 full-time staffers and thousands of volunteers, carrying both smartphones and pen and paper, visiting over 160,000 villages to build awareness about the importance of raising childrens' learning levels, as a part of a campaign called Lakhon Mein Ek.

They visited some urban clusters too, Anand Parbat being one. The buzz - short-lived or otherwise - was discernable here last week, with semi-educated housewives and older children pitching in, along with Pratham's volunteers, to conduct on-the-spot assessments, and help children read and do maths.

Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, and Wilima Wadhwa, director of the ASER centre, explain that what is afoot is an effort to marry Pratham's well-honed techniques to boost literacy and numeracy with the nation-wide sweep achieved by ASER. Every year, ASER reaches 577 rural districts and reports depressingly low learning levels. For example, the 2005 finding that about half of the children enrolled in standard 5 could not read a standard two text has remained virtually unchanged. There has been only a marginal decline since 2010.

Increasingly, a standard response to ASER's reports has been, as Wadhwa humourously puts it, "Got it! Now tell us, what next?" But ASER, she points out, is not designed to offer solutions - it's like a thermometer. On the other hand, Pratham's work with about a million children, to improve numeracy and literacy, has achieved sustained results, suggests independent evaluation by MIT's Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.

"ASER gave us the confidence that we can do things at scale. So we are asking ourselves, can we create solutions at scale?" says Banerji. Mobilising at the village level, she stresses, is a crucial step here. Even while ASER's data collectors have showed up in 16,000 villages annually, the survey's findings have only been disseminated upwards, to influence policy, and never downwards. It was a gap, says Banerji, because while poor parents don't need to be convinced to admit their children to school (as evident from resoundingly high enrolment figures) and are eager to pay for tuitions, they lack the information, the confidence, the tools, even the conversational phrases, to engage with their children's learning. "Policy is a supply push," says Wadhwa. "You also need a demand push. Parents have to demand better schools, better levels of public service, more learning."

On February 1, at a meeting in Delhi, Pratham will review what it learnt from Lakhon Mein Ek, and discuss future action plan. It is already clear, though, that ASER 2016 will survey school children in the 10 to 16 age group, and not 5 to 16 as before. ASER's assessment materials, currently of standard two level and below, will be redesigned, to test for higher level competencies.

In focusing on the older group, ASER is following the government's shifting focus, from universalization of elementary education to access to secondary education and retention of students in secondary school (as set out in the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan). However, it is also pursuing its concern that as children progress through secondary school, a lack of foundational skills leads to a further accumulation of learning deficits, and contributes to students dropping out of school. (At 6 to 14, three per cent of children are estimated to be out of school, at 15 and 16, around 16 per cent.)

The policy of automatic promotion until grade eight introduced with the passage of the Right to Education Act makes it all the more imperative, stresses Wadhwa, to study this age group. "We know so little," she says, "about the watershed years when drop-outs increase, and whether children who join the labour force after class eight have the skills to function as productive persons?" Apart from testing academic competencies, ASER 2016 will also look at broader capabilities, such as problem solving ability and capability for carrying out everyday calculations.

Prof R Govinda, former Vice Chancellor of National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), now with the Council for Social Development, comments that such a report may draw necessary attention to the worrying trend of massive grade inflation in board exams. "If it shows that children are not learning well in these grades, it will raise the question of how are they passing these exams in such larger numbers?" He agrees that Pratham needs to move in new directions. ASER, he says, "has told a big, and important story, but the unchanging learning levels, year after year, show that it has not been able to make a political impact. Over the years, this Pratham Delhi trustee observes, "ASER has come to occupy a bigger space than the work Pratham does for development, and that is something that needs to be corrected. But he also wonders how much impact "scaling up" by NGOs can have, when their budgets are, all said and told, a pittance compared to the government.

However, Wadhwa looks at it differently. "This is a very large elephant, we can't just say leave it to government. Everyone has to contribute, including rural communities, which have to take ownership of the problem."

  • Pratham works with a million children, to boost numeracy and literacy, and reaches another six million indirectly, by training teachers
  • Its flagship programme Read India, which aims to teach a child to read fluently and do basic arithmetic in 50 days, has been found effective by MIT's Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab
  • Pratham's ASER is the only comprehensive year-on-year survey of children's learning levels, covering 577 rural districts
  • Learning levels have remained low over 10 years of ASER. Pratham now wants to deliver solutions to the situation reported by ASER, using new technology and campaign approaches
  • There was no ASER survey in late 2015. Instead, Pratham launched the Lakhon Mein Ek campaign to mobilise communities on learning levels. So far, 164,000 villages have been visited
  • ASER will be back in a revamped form this year, with new parameters and assessment tools. It will look at different age groups in rotation, and secondary education will be an important focus
  • ASER 2016 will survey children in the 10-16 age group, instead of 5-16 previously

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    First Published: Jan 29 2016 | 12:05 AM IST

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