A First Hand Look at ASER’s Methodology

Chloe Walker

PhD scholar, Oxford University

I met Pratham’s CEO, Dr Rukmini Banerji, in Oxford at a Rhodes House Talk in June 2016. Having previously been familiar and impressed with Pratham’s work, I jumped at Dr Banerji’s invitation to visit Pratham and the ASER Centre in Delhi. ASER, the Annual Status of Education Report is a household survey, measuring basic literacy and numeracy levels in rural India. The idea is simple; it is citizen-run, citizen-led, and citizen-focussed.

I arrived at the ASER centre in early December, a time of relative quiet before the year-end publication storm. I was fortunate enough to accompany Navishti, a research assistant, on one of the last rounds of surveying in Dehradun, a city at the foothills of the Himalayas. I spent the better part of the weekend observing ASER in action, following two pairs of community volunteers as they carried out the process. The standard procedure is this: The volunteers arrive early on Saturday to visit the largest government primary school, inquiring about its student population and facilities. Then, the pair physically maps the village with the help of the residents. Each village is divided into 4 sections called hamlets, and each 5th house per section is visited, a method called the “5th household rule”. From there, the surveyors request basic information about the members of the household and its amenities. Every child between 5 and 16 is given a basic literacy and numeracy test which lasts about 5 minutes.

Two of ASER’s main features stand out in my mind. First, the simplicity and time efficiency of the tests. It is a front-end minimalism which masterfully masks the rigor of the preparation behind (and beneath) the scenes. The second feature is the family and community involvement which ASER brings. With a background in education, I am quite familiar with educational tests and assessments, but ASER’s biggest differentiator and, arguably, its greatest strength is a carefully crafted openness and informality, with community involvement from conception to execution.

But there was another motive for my visit. Not only did I want to observe ASER’s methodology first-hand, but I also wanted to determine whether and to what extent it may be applied in the Caribbean. I’m a Barbadian by birth (and temperament!), and while our region has made incredible educational strides, particularly given our size and age, there is still a great deal of speculation over the state of our education system. To say that the Caribbean’s education sector is under-researched is an under-statement. I often argue that current government efforts are insufficient and need to be supplemented by independent assessments. With appropriate adaptation, ASER’s assessment may be a timely thermometer, either to reassure us of our progress, or to shock us into immediate action.

As I write this piece, I’m heading home for a short visit. And as I bask in Barbados’ world-renowned sun, sea and sand, I’ll ruminate on the logistics of a Caribbean ASER in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, Wilima, Rukmini, Ranajit and the team are tirelessly preparing this year’s ASER report in time for the January 18th deadline.

Watch these spaces!