If you were marking answer sheets from a grade 8 exam and you came across one that was mostly blank, what would you think?
Probably you would think that the child did not study for the exam and does not know the subject matter. You would give her a bad grade and get ready to scold her.
Probably it would not occur to you that she may not have been able to read the questions.
This is because like most people, you assume that if a child has been going to school for more than seven years, she has gained some “learning” — the knowledge, abilities and skills that schools are supposed to impart. She must at least be able to read and write.
Almost everybody would agree with you, from parents in rural India who have never been to school themselves, to those responsible for education policy in the country.
Back in 2000, policy makers from 189 countries also thought this way. They agreed on a set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), of which the goal for education was to achieve universal school enrollment for children all over the world by the year 2015. They too thought that once children were enrolled in school, “learning” would automatically happen.
Milllenium Development Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education
And so, in many countries the focus for many years was on getting children into school.
In India, too, huge efforts were made to achieve universal enrolment at the elementary stage. Because the focus was on expanding access, statistics on access and enrollment began to be routinely tracked by the government.
For many years, few people thought to question whether the intended outcomes of schooling were being achieved. If children were going to school, the thinking went, they must be learning.
The Invisible Problem
Modern school systems are heavily dependent on the printed word. No matter how talented or creative children are, they cannot get far in school without the ability to read and write. The world beyond school, too, is increasingly text-dependent.
In Indian schools, teaching-learning activities revolve around the printed word in the form of textbooks. Textbooks are such an important part of the teaching-learning process that government schools provide them free to all children.
And teachers are required by law to complete the syllabus (in the form of the textbook) during the academic year.
The education system assumes that if you are in (for example) grade 5, you are able to read and understand the grade 5 textbooks.
But most grade 5 children in rural India are not able to handle the long words and complex text that grade 5 textbooks usually contain. Most are not even able to read much shorter, simpler text of the kind usually found in grade 2 textbooks.
What does “completing the textbook” mean for these children?
As Pratham CEO Rukmini Banerji discusses in a blog post for the Brookings Institution, the problem of children going to school but not learning is an invisible problem. You can see children going to school and you assume they are learning.
It is also a huge problem. Very large proportions of children are in this situation, not only in India but in many countries of the global South.
From the video “What is the global learning crisis?” by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) programme. See the full video here.
The problem is invisible because the learning assessments that are traditionally done are pen-paper assessments of grade level content, like the one you imagined grading at beginning of this post. In other words, a grade 5 child is usually given a written test with questions based on the content of grade 5 textbooks.
These are the kinds of assessments that are done in school and even at the national level, by the National Achievement Survey (NAS), which periodically tests children in Std 3, 5 and 8.
But as we saw earlier, there is no way you can tell whether or not a child can read by looking at a written test. And so even after a traditional assessment test, the problem remains invisible.
A problem can’t be solved until it is visible
There is only one way to know whether a child can read. And that is to listen to her reading. Reading ability cannot be tested in a written exam and it cannot be tested in a group.
Without foundational skills, children cannot make progress in school. Simply being in school is not enough. Changes in what teachers and children actually do in classrooms are urgently needed. But a problem can only be solved once it is recognized.
ASER was designed to make this invisible problem visible- not only in New Delhi, but in rural communities across the country. Which is why every year, about 25,000 volunteers listen to more than 600,000 children read simple text aloud and solve basic arithmetic questions.
As Ketan Verma from ASER Centre’s Assessment Unit says, this is certainly not all that we expect children to learn but it is certainly the foundation on which the rest is built: