Involving Citizens in the Provision of Good Quality Education

Speaking on a panel titled, ‘Looking back, Looking ahead : International Perspectives’, as part of ASER 2014 release in New Delhi

In January, I was honored to be present as the Pratham family celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). I learned that ASER means impact in Hindi. Having followed its progress closely over the years, I can only confirm that ASER is fulfilling the vision and promise of its name.

In India, ASER findings have helped inform education policy makers at the community, state and national levels. The ASER approach of assessing children’s basic reading and mathematics skills within their homes in various languages has also been adopted by teams in Pakistan, various African countries and soon in Mexico. The ASER reports draw government attention to the need for education reforms and the importance of prioritizing education. They also encourage community leaders and local citizens to learn more about the quality of education being provided in the schools in their areas.

Holding governments and schools to account through assessments that measure and monitor learning has taken off in recent years. More and more people want to know whether children are truly receiving a quality education and what knowledge and skills they are acquiring. Indeed, the Pratham-ASER assessment has been at the forefront of a veritable explosion of national learning assessments around the world.

The Education for All Global Monitoring Report has been mapping the global growth in national learning assessments. We have found that, from 1990 to 1999, 70 countries conducted at least one national assessment, while twice as many countries (142) had done so between 2000 and 2013. Altogether more than 1100 national learning assessments have been conducted since 2000. We will be publishing our findings on national learning assessments in our 2015 Report, which I am delighted to say will be launched in New Delhi on 9 April 2015.

National assessments, if done well, provide a wealth of evidence on children and adolescent learning levels and are essential in clarifying the education policy challenges that communities and countries face. They don’t just tell us whether schools (and families) are enabling students to learn well. They also provide crucial information about which groups of students and out of school children are in need of particular attention by governments and community leaders. In many instances they can provide insights into the policies, practices and teaching methods that are most effective enablers of learning.

Learning among children, youth and adults is likely to be at the heart of the post-2015 education targets, which representatives of governments, civil society and international organizations will debate at this year’s World Education Forum in Incheon, Korea, and at the UN Summit in New York City. The currently proposed targets underscore the need for countries to develop effective assessment frameworks and improve their capacities to track learning over time and address the needs of marginalized groups.

Participants in these international gatherings should not overlook the essential role of national assessments of learning. Such assessments are, by their very definition, more attuned to the history and context of each setting, and often carry greater weight among national and local decision makers. They provide opportunities to go beyond traditional assessments of literacy and numeracy and to explore the acquisition of other skills and competencies, as well as subject matter that directly affects progress towards a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. National assessments have a potential to be innovative as they examine cross-cutting issues and emergent education aims.

It is critical that national assessments are scientifically rigorous and useful. They should be carefully designed and administered and speak to the concerns of school leaders and teachers. They should provide relevant feedback and direction as to how to improve teaching styles and the quality of student experiences. If, like ASER, they are structured as household surveys, then they should help us to identify the characteristics of “learner-friendly” homes.

The Pratham leadership and its many thousands of volunteers have created a special force in the education policy field, both at home and abroad. They have shaped anew the ways committed reformers and communities think about the education of their children. I wish the entire Pratham-ASER family much continued success in the coming years!

Aaron Benavot is Director, Education for All Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO.