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Assessing ASER 2017

Reading between the Lines

Disha Nawani ( teaches at the School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The publication of the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2017 titled “Beyond Basics” has resulted in predictable outcry over the state of education in the country. Using the report as a case in point, the complexities in reading and interpreting data presented by such large-scale assessments on learning are highlighted.

Since 2005, the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASERs) have been doing a commendable job in shining light on the gnawing gap that exists between what children in schools should know, and what they actually know. The ASER (Rural) 2017 survey titled “Beyond Basics” is out in the public domain with its twin focus on assessment of basic literacy and numeracy skills of an older cohort (14–18 years), and also an examination of the activities that they were engaged in, abilities (application of foundational skills to everyday situations), aspirations (related to future roles/jobs) and general awareness (exposure to mobiles, computer, internet). Its findings are fairly predictable. Considering that elementary schoolchildren have been reported to have severe learning deficits, it would have been unrealistic to expect the older age group to show an upswing in learning.

The survey is confined to 30,000 youth from 28 rural districts in 24 states of India. However, the manner in which its findings are projected, interpreted and implications are drawn for policies, seems to be making sweeping judgments on the learning of all children in India. This is evident from the nature of headlines of articles reporting ASER’s findings in media, both electronic and print: “ASER 2017 Shows India’s Secondary Education Sector Is Failing to Impart Basic Skills,” “One in Two Indian Students Can’t Read Books Meant for Three Classes Below,” and “We the Half Educated People” (Nanda 2017; Ghosh and Bandyopadhyay 2018; Bhagat 2015). My intention in this article is to point out the complexities in reading and making sense of the data presented by large-scale assessments (LSAs) on learning, using ASER as a case in point. Since it has contributed to shaping popular discourse on school education in India for almost a decade, it needs to be viewed very carefully.

Illusory Assessment Results

To begin with, it is important to be cognisant of the concerns raised by researchers across the globe with respect to LSAs. Any kind of educational measurement is only an approximation of particular kinds of abilities. Yardsticks applied to measurement of physical features, such as height or weight cannot be applied equally to the study of mental processes like thinking, abilities, etc. At most, one can attempt to infer cognitive processes based on some evidence, but not claim to provide accurate unassailable accounts of learning.

All assessment tools have some limitations and, even if data drawn from them is reliable and valid, they provide only a partial picture with a certain fixed idea of learning. Each such tool has an underlying theory of learning and attempts to capture a certain kind of evidence based on that theory. While for some, the outcomes alone would be a fair indicator of learning, for others, processes by which one arrived at that outcome would perhaps be of greater value. Such assessments can measure only those abilities which are amenable to objective manifestation and standardised quantification. Added to this is the fact that such data is collected within a specified time period, and less emphasis is given to either rapport building, or allowing the respondents to formulate their answers at ease.

The visibility, hype and linkages of these surveys with the notion of “quality” education and “accountability,” put enormous pressure on the teachers to “teach to the test” and on schools, in turn, to produce results. This is because, by showing/exposing students’ learning, they also make a comment not only on students, but also on teachers, schools and education systems at large. This results in the meaning of learning being reduced to what is asked in these tests, and quality being equated with students’ performance scores. Even if these basic skills are absolutely integral to a child’s learning, they capture a limited and fixed idea of learning, which violates the fundamental principles of viewing the teaching–learning process as an emancipatory exercise, where students and teachers jointly make sense of the world.

International tests go a step further, and make important statements on what children across the globe should know and manage critically. However, one is not sure about their universal appeal and relevance, and whether

they represent the kind of critical knowledge which children everywhere in the world would need to know to flourish as citizens-in-the-making. (Soudien 2011: 190)

If only the efficiency of assessment practices is questioned—and not their purposes and effects—the debate, such as it is, will continue to centre on means rather than ends. (Broadfoot 1996: 13–14)

Unfortunately, discussions on the LSAs mostly revolve around the mechanics of testing, sampling design and efficacy of the tools used, and not so much on their implications on learning, pedagogic interactions in classrooms, role of teachers and importance of prior knowledge and experiences of the child.

ASER data is being showcased and interpreted in a manner replete with the problems discussed above. Besides, the methodology of ASER has been put through some severe criticisms such as the use of oral rather than pen–paper testing, household-based rather than school-based surveys, collection of data by volunteers and not schoolteachers, etc (Kumar 2015). It is a bit difficult
to comprehend why children should respond to questions out of the blue, from unfamiliar volunteers, on the basis of which the children intuitively know they are being assessed.

However, more than the methodology of the survey, it is the covert and overt messages it conveys that need to be carefully examined. The next section highlights a few such messages, and cautions against taking these messages at face value.

Public–Private Dichotomy

It is being said that “the education system seems to have become like that powerful emperor without clothes. Everyone can see that he is naked but no one wants to say so” (Chavan 2018: 10). ASER 2017 once again pitches private schools against public schools. It reports relatively better learning outcomes of students studying in the former over the latter. This dichotomy posited by ASER has led to popular imagination and political will being polarised into two camp.

To understand this issue in perspective, it is important to recognise that private and public schools are internally differentiated. There is a clear internal hierarchy in both the spaces in terms of resources, infrastructure, quality of teachers, fee charged, etc. There is absolutely no data which shows that all public schools are bad (plagued with problems of abysmal learning levels among children, and teacher absenteeism), and all private schools are good, in terms of the learning that they offer their students. It is reported that private-school children score better than government-school children in learning assessments. However, such an interpretation acknowledges, but does not sufficiently account for the differential backgrounds of the children studying in them. Besides, research has also shown that private schools add no value for children in terms of learning outcomes as compared to government
schools (Karopady 2014). Moreover, such surveys have a very narrow view of learning, which is essentially rote-based and does not assess higher order skills (Sarangapani 2009; Sarangapani and Winch 2010). The positioning of the school in the layered school system correlates with the differential social backgrounds of children studying in either public or private schools. However, children studying in free government schools come from backgrounds with a relatively greater disadvantage.

This issue needs to be understood in relation to the larger trends being witnessed across the world, including in India.

(i) Since the early 1990s, the Indian government under its Structural Adjustment Programmes policy started shrinking its financial responsibility towards social sectors like health and education.

(ii) There has been a multiplication of non-public organisations, ranging from philanthropic to huge, for-profit, corporate houses investing in education.

(iii) The current wave of neo-liberal reforms, which celebrates the adoption of new private management principles to public institutions, giving voice to terms like accountability and efficiency and in the process, accusing public schools of possessing neither.

(iv) Frequent tests are given, where children’s learning is being constantly monitored.

(v) Many more children from diverse, heterogeneous and largely disadvantaged backgrounds have entered into schools, under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE). Needless to say, such children face greater challenges in learning because of the school they access and constrained family circumstances.

Therefore, blanket claims that private-school children show better learning outcomes, and that private schools are cost-efficient and performance-driven, with accountable teachers, need to be interpreted carefully. Problems with these kind of generalisations are well-documented.

However, they have effected enormous damage to the cause of state-supported public education, especially with regard to two central provisions of the RTE, “infrastructural prerequisites for private schools to get recognition” and “no-detention policy till class 8.” The two implicit assertions arising out of the interpretation of ASER data are as follows.

Assertion 1: Better inputs are not equal to better outputs/weaker inputs are equal to better outputs

Bizarre as it may sound, this is exactly what the private-schools-for-poor lobby, citing ASER data is claiming. They assert that their schools are unable to meet the basic minimum requirements as listed in the RTE Act (Sections 18 and 19) and yet their children learn, as manifested in learning surveys. This data is then quoted, in order to push for deregulation of private schools. The RTE’s insistence that “inputs,” such as basic infrastructure, classrooms, toilets and qualified teachers, are necessary for private schools to be recognised is questioned in the wake of their seemingly better “outputs.” Where the public school education is shown to be oblivious to its weaknesses and floundering, the private school system is projected as being enlightened, aware of its strengths and flourishing.

This claim is problematic at two levels. First, it lacks a nuanced understanding of both learning and social contexts of children and their relationship with each other, as shown above. Second, it is an unethical position, and violates the right of all children (more essentially the poor) to have access to equitable, good quality education. A slipshod education for the poor without even basic requirements—both academic and infrastructural—in place, cannot be justified at any cost.

Assertion 2: Detain children, ensure learning

The ASER has been rather vociferously lobbying against the provision relating to the non-detention of children until Class 8, as mandated in the RTE Act (Section 16), which the report claims has worsened learning levels of children.

When a child is held back in a grade it is an early warning sign to parents as well as teachers that the child needs additional help. In our current system, a child can progress upto class 8 without anyone figuring out that she needs help. (Wadhwa 2018: 17)

This is not true. The RTE envisioned a comprehensive and dynamic way of assessment which was meant to constantly guide children through their limitations. Moreover, this provision was meant to prevent potential dropouts and ensure that the child stays in a fear-free, non-threatening environment for the entire elementary school cycle (Nawani 2015).

Interestingly, a recent study conducted by two scholars from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, which entailed an analysis of 10 years of national-level data from ASER itself, disputes the claim that the automatic promotion of children between Classes 1 and 8 harmed learning. The researchers found that learning levels were dipping even before 2010, and that some states were able
to improve learning or at least arrest a decline after 2010. Studying the ability of Class 3 students to perform subtraction over four years (2009–12), they also found that students who were taught exclusively under the no-detention policy (NDP) are able to show the same level of performance as those students who have partly been taught the same concept under the detention system, by the time they reach Class 7 (Saraf and Deshmukh 2018).

Another implicit assertion made by ASER is in relation to schoolteachers, who can be made to “deliver” results provided they receive training, are kept on contract, and despite being paid significantly less in comparison to public schoolteachers as per the Sixth Pay Commission. The reverse of this is also held to be true. Government schoolteachers drawing larger salaries and holding secure jobs are often absent from school and have no accountability towards the learning of children. However, loopholes in this argument are also well-documented, not to mention the damage it causes to the professional integrity and morale of teachers (Jain and Saxena 2010).

Other Concerns

Besides these critical concerns, the prelude to the report has a few articles by the core ASER team members. These articles raise pertinent issues, arising out of the team’s experience in collecting and analysing the data. However, these too need to be examined carefully for their implications—both overt and covert.

Dismissal of government machinery: The report unabashedly and unilaterally condemns the formal institutions of learning (especially public institutions), reiterates faith in digital technology, and positions passionate individuals with a reformatory zeal to replace institutions. It asserts, Over a period of time governments and educational bodies have themselves declared the institutional education and examination mechanisms—at least at the undergraduate level—untrustworthy and undependable,” and suggests new learning structures where, “local tutors help students and where learning groups can use group and peer learning processes to learn” (Chavan 2018: 10). In a similar vein it argues,

whether at school level or college, we have many institutions. But often institutions don’t deliver what they are supposed to do. It takes individuals, their dreams and desires to confront and then bridge the gaps thereby creating new opportunities for moving ahead. (Banerji 2018: 14)

It cannot be denied that formal learning mechanisms or public institutions, besides offering only one of the possible routes to learning, are themselves grappling with several issues, be it curricular, pedagogic or lack of relevance for the world of work. However, it is preposterous to completely negate their worth, and instead pin hopes on the moral urges of a few individuals. This becomes especially pertinent when the future of millions of children and youth who are dependent on state support, are proposed to be left to the will of some well-intentioned individuals. On the one hand, the state, instead of being held accountable rather than dismissed, and strengthened rather than replaced, is cursorily dismissed as a vestigial organ. On the other, the welfare of poor people is left either to the charity of good souls or vagaries of the private players in the market.

Schools for some, skills for others: It is interesting that formal education is being rubbished only for those who cannot afford it, both in terms of time, costs incurred and relevance. Vocational skilling is suggested as an alternative to formal school for such children.

After all formal education is not for everyone and the government is putting a lot of energy into promoting vocational skilling as an alternative to formal schooling. (Wadhwa 2018: 15)

It is also well established by now that vocational courses introduced in schools have strong linkages with class and caste dimensions of children’s lives. Poor children end up taking courses in automobile repair, retail, and security, with girls being pushed into fashion, beauty and hair care. The scores in these subjects are not counted in university applications, blocking these students’ entry into higher education institutions.

Impressions galore: The report also reflects a tendency to make offhand statements, which are more impressionistic than empirical, such as observations on outdated syllabi, shortage of staff, and “zero” value of degrees and certification of higher education institutions While statements such as these can be made in informal spaces, to articulate them in a public document is a bit premature. It is well known that the quality of institutions differs across schools, boards, and universities, and no sweeping judgments regarding them can be justified. After a wholesale condemnation of certificates, degrees, etc, the report proposes a standardised examination for youth to show credible evidence of their abilities to prospective employers.

Numerous Paradoxes

The report contains some paradoxes as well. On the one hand, it states that about one-fourth of youth (and more than one-fourth of girls) had to discontinue their studies because of financial reasons, while, on the other, it questions the worth of public-supported education for such children, pitching private for-profit schools against government schools. It further states that 16% of boys dropped out in the previous year from schools because they had been failed in schools. Despite that, it wants the no-detention policy to be scrapped from the RTE. Adding further to this contradiction is its assertion that, “there is something about being in school, over and above completion of certain years of schooling that imparts certain degree of confidence to youth” (Wadhwa 2018: 18). If longer years of stay in schools impart confidence to children from disadvantaged sections, why should a policy of detention that humiliates the children, thereby pushing them out of the school, be favoured?

The report also states that 26% of youth had used computers in the previous week, 59% never used computers, and 64% had never accessed the internet. It also reported that, girls and young women have far lower access to computers and the internet as compared to boys. Despite this, it considers digital literacy a viable option in a country where even electricity, let alone access to working computers or the internet, is a huge concern.


The aim of this article is not to singularly discredit the contribution and significance of ASER, but to highlight that such assessments often reveal a partial, skewed picture of human ability and enterprise. For the past several years, through its dismal data, ASER has been drawing attention to two important points: that enrolment does not ensure learning, and the importance of foundational skills in learning. However, its data, which is neither comprehensive nor representative, is being used willy-nilly in order to assert the inefficacy and, therefore, the redundancy of public school systems, to question the commitment and efficiency of government schoolteachers, and to challenge the fundamental basis of the RTE, which aims to promote equitable education to all children for eight years in a fear-free, non-threatening atmosphere. These implications are certainly worrisome and call for deeper investigation, nuanced interpretation and careful scrutiny, lest they do more harm than good to the cause of public education.


Banerji, Rukmini (2018): “Opportunities and Outcomes,” Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2017: Beyond Basics, ASER Centre, New Delhi.

Bhagat, Chetan (2015): “We the Half Educated People,” Times of India, 26 January,

Broadfoot, Patricia (1996): Education, Assessment and Society: A Sociological Analysis, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Chavan, Madhav (2018): “Giving the Emperor New Clothes,” Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2017: Beyond Basics, ASER Centre, New Delhi.

Ghosh, Aniruddha and Sujan Bandyopadhyay (2018): “ASER 2017 Shows India’s Secondary Education Sector Is Failing to Impart Basic Skills,” Wire, 20 January,

Jain, Manish and Sadhana Saxena (2010): “Politics of Low Cost Schooling and Low Teachers Salary,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 45, No 18, pp 79–80.

Karopady, D D (2014): “Does School Choice Help Rural Children from Disadvantaged Sections? Evidence from Longitudinal Research in Andhra Pradesh,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 49, No 51, pp 46–53.

Kumar, Krishna (2015): “We Need a Real Learning Grid for India’s Elementary Schools,” Hindustan Times, 21 January,

Nanda, Prashant (2017): “One in Two Indian Students Can’t Read Books Meant for Three Classes below: ASER,” Livemint, 19 January,

Nawani, Disha (2015): “Rethinking Assessments in Schools,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 50, No 3, pp 37–41.

Saraf, Ankit and Ketan Deshmukh (2018): “To Fail or Not to Fail?” unpublished research study,
Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Sarangapani, Padma M (2009): “Quality, Feasibility and Desirability of Low Cost Private Schooling,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 44, No 43, pp 67–69.

Sarangapani, Padma M and Christopher Winch (2010): “Tooley, Dixon and Gomathi on Private Education in Hyderabad: A Reply,” Oxford Review of Education, Vol 36, No 4, pp 499–515.

Soudien, Crain (2011): “Building Quality in Education: Are International Standards Helpful?” Contemporary Education Dialogue, New Delhi: Sage, pp 183–200.

Wadhwa, Wilima (2018): “Youth in India: The
Present of Our Future,” Annual Status of
Education Report (Rural) 2017: Beyond Basics,
ASER Centre, New Delhi.

Updated On : 26th Feb, 2018


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