Navishti Das – Describing Numbers

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Descriptive statistics, the kind used in the ASER report, is a method of visualizing data to make abstract numbers more meaningful. I thought I understood this. But it was only when I got out on the field that I saw what ‘descriptive’ truly meant. You see, they weren’t just numbers, they were stories. And like the greens of the paddy fields in these stories, the solid green on the pie chart of readers consisted myriad hues.

Being a ‘floor’ test of basic reading, ASER’s percentages of story level readers also consist of children who are far above the levels we test. They look puzzled when asked to read a simple std II text, confidently rush through it and conclude with a shrug for good measure.

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The shy smile of success

While these readers are the easiest to survey, the ones I find most rewarding are the quiet surprises. Before you can even start testing, the parent will tell you not to waste your time, for “she’s not smart”. When the child sees the tool, she’ll look at you, crestfallen, and quietly insist that she can’t. But when doing ASER you want to believe that every child can, so you ask her to try anyway. As she begins to whisper the words, she puts them together to make sentences and strings them along as she reads the story. Even as she does, she shakes her head at her perceived inability but persists because you said shabaash. Slowly, but flawlessly she reaches the end, and your face mirrors her smile as you jointly marvel at the progress she has made.

The other extreme are those who don’t even get a colour on the pie chart. These unrecorded numbers are the amusing stories of children who run, hide and throw fits so they don’t have to read. So strong is this denial that no amount of chasing, seeking, cajoling or incentives can change their mind. True, this is particularly fun to watch (as long as you’re not doing the chasing), but retrospectively, it’s not funny at all. How long can they keep running till the necessity of reading catches up with them?

The easiest to miss though, are what I call forgotten readers. She demands none of your attention, but if you’re observant enough, you’ll see daadi standing behind the surveyed child, noiselessly moving her lips, reveling in a story about a rainy day. “I went to school too, you know”, she’ll say, “but I don’t really read anymore”.

With ASER I’ve learnt that research isn’t simply about the results at the end, but the very act of asking the question is inherently valuable. It has allowed me to encourage growth, one shy smile at a time, raise more questions, and sometimes, to share the joy of reading.

And of course, I’ve learnt to describe the statistics. So now when I look at ASER’s numbers, I don’t just draw pie charts and bar graphs, but take a nation-wide class photograph.

Navishti Das

Research Associate, ASER Centre       

  • Renu Seth

    Very good read. Proud of your efforts and learning.

  • Neharika Mahajan

    This was a wonderful wonderful read. Really filled up my heart. Congrats Navishti.

  • Aidan Eyakuze

    This is a truly wonderful, rbief, and somewhat heartbreaking piece of ‘descriptive statistics.’ It is to tell stories like this that I endured statistics and worse (econometrics!) in university. While that can be mathematically elegant, this and other stories are so much more spiritually challenging, and motivating too. Thank you.

  • Viren Bansal

    It’s quite grand to see that members of such fundamental institutions, such as ASER, understand the problem of statistics, viz. they conceal so much of what they try to inform us about. It feels grand that the change has begun. Congratulations yo.