Right now, all over rural India, this is happening: Two local volunteers with a few days’ training come into the village. They knock on randomly selected doors, asking to see all children ages 6 to 16 who live there. In the front yard of the house, they test the children one by one in reading and math. A crowd gathers: parents, neighbors, sometimes the whole village. Children jump up and down, shouting, “Test me! Test me!”
Each test is a single sheet of paper. The reading sheet — here’s an example in Hindi and here’s one inEnglish (PDF), and there are 15 other languages as well — has four sections. The volunteers ask children to read letters, words, a short paragraph and a longer story. The math sheet has single-digit and double-digit number recognition, two-digit subtraction with borrowing, and division on the level of, for example, 673 divided by eight.
The volunteers record the highest level in reading and math the child can manage comfortably. Then they to go another house: 20 chosen at random from various parts of the village.
During October and November, volunteers will test between 600,000 and 700,000 children, including some in every rural district in India.
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, given to Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian campaigner against child labor, and Malala Yousafzai, who needs no introduction, is the most recent global endorsement of the idea that children belong in school, not at work.
School attendance is rising nearly everywhere. In India, for example, 96 percent of school-age children are enrolled — in part due to a 2009 law making education free and compulsory for children ages 6 to 14. India is winning the battle to get children into school.
But it is losing the war: Only some of these children are getting an education.
We know this mainly because of the tests done by the volunteers. Their report is called ASER, the Annual Status of Education Report (“aser” also means “impact” in Hindi), which is now in its 10th year. The project is organized not by the government, but by a particularly successful and rigorous — lots of outside evaluations — nongovernmental group calledPratham.
ASER is more than a survey. By making children’s learning visible to parents, teachers and policymakers, it has become a mobilizing force for better-quality education. It has helped to turn the government’sfocus beyond enrollment, toward learning. And Pratham is not just diagnosing the problem. It is also introducing simple methods that teach children basic skills. Because of ASER, communities and now states are adopting these methods in learning camps (PDF) and during the school day.
Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mali and Senegal all now use a form of ASER, and Nigeria and Mexico are starting. The survey is attractive because it is organized and carried out by citizens, and because it can be done on an enormous scale at a tiny cost. Last year India’s nationwide ASER cost $1.3 million. (Not a typo.) The survey, moreover, can be done and tallied quickly — Pratham publishes the results each year about 100 days after the survey begins.
Those results (PDF) are heartbreaking.
Last year, only 40 percent of third graders could read a first-grade-level paragraph and more than one-third couldn’t even read words. Of fifth graders surveyed, fewer than half could read a second-grade-level story — and 5 percent couldn’t even recognize letters.
In math, 30 percent of third graders tested recognized two-digit numbers. Only one-quarter of fifth graders could do the three digit by one digit division problems — a skill normally taught in third or fourth grade. The ASER also shows that learning levels are dropping — results for 2013 are the worst yet.
The raw results show that private-school students do much better than government-school students. But much of the difference can be explained by their family backgrounds and incomes (which in India, as elsewhere, correlate with school achievement). If you control for that, private-school students do only a tiny bit better.
Why do students learn so little? There are the usual problems: There are teachers who don’t show up and students who don’t show up — in some states, only half of enrolled children are in school on any given day. (Poor student attendance is both cause and effect of poor achievement — after all, why should a student who isn’t learning go to school when she can be helping her family on the farm?) Classes are enormous, there are few or no books and children “learn” through rote repetition.
India’s government is trying to solve these problems. Over the past few years, it has substantially increased spending to add books, reduce class size, increase teacher salaries and improve infrastructure. Yet these improvements have not led to more learning.
Rukmini Banerji, who leads the ASER, says Pratham’s evidence shows that the most important reason is something else: By law in India, the teacher must cover the entire year’s formal curriculum. “When the fourth-grade teacher uses the fourth-grade textbook, you’re eliminating 80 percent of the class,” Banerji said. Someone sitting in a fourth-grade classroom who can’t read a simple sentence will be lost on the first day — and never catch up. “The learning curve is flat.”
The ASER survey is not India’s only nationwide test of school achievement. The official test is the National Achievement Survey, a written exam given in school in third and eighth grades. That survey shows that learning is improving, and students are doing somewhat better than the ASER test would suggest. Government officials have dismissed the ASER as amateurish and cursory.
“Only in India could a survey covering 500,000 children be dismissed as cursory,” said Lant Pritchett, a professor of international development at Harvard’s Kennedy School who observed Pratham firsthand when he worked for the World Bank in India — and has helped to raise funds for the organization. “It’s not supposed to be a comprehensive assessment about what children in India know,” he said. “It’s meant to be simple enough so an illiterate mother or father can understand what a child can and cannot do — simplicity is one of its virtues. I think the government deliberately conflates — as if ‘cursory’ means it’s inaccurate at what it measures. I think it’s super accurate at what it measures.”
The ASER is the largest nongovernmental measure of learning, but there are at least five others — and they all come out closer to the ASER than to the government’s school-based test. One reason for the discrepancy might be that children take the ASER at home, so it catches those who are absent. Pritchett believes another reason is that the government test puts the questions in exactly the same form in which students study them — easier to answer, but not the best test of learning.
Karthik Muralidharan, an associate professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego, who has studied primary education in India extensively, thinks both the government test and ASER could be accurate. The government test does better at capturing changes in learning for high-achieving students — those scores could be improving while scores for low-achieving students are falling at the same time.
Testing children at home not only catches a more representative sample, it creates ASER’s impact. When children don’t go to school, it’s visible. When they go to school but don’t learn, it’s invisible. “That children are in school but not learning is a very new realization for parents as well as policymakers,” Banerji said. “Parents don’t know about this — even those who can read themselves. They assume that in school means O.K.”
The ASER makes a lack of learning visible. School is a foreign country to many parents, especially illiterate parents. “This might be the first time parents really observe what their kids can and can’t do,” said Ruth Levine, director of global development and population programs at the Hewlett Foundation (a major funder of Pratham), and a former chief of evaluation policy for USAID. “It’s the quintessential teachable moment. Parents are observing their children unable to correctly read a simple sentence. Volunteers are trained to start a conversation about what can be done.”
Pratham’s solution is a program called Read India. The idea is simple: Teachers group children by ability instead of grade level. (These are fluid groups; kids who master letters then move to the words group.) And children abandon the official textbook for a few hours to concentrate on the basics — taught not in the usual rote-memorization mode, but through games. Read India classes are usually held outdoors, where parents can watch.What can be done? Changing India’s educational system is a challenge — few bureaucracies are more rigid.
Volunteers run weeklong Read India learning campsin thousands of villages each year. They test every child in the village, then share the results at a village meeting. At camp, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade children who are far behind in reading or math spend three or four hours a day using activities, games and colorful materials to work on the basics. Children almost always move up at least one level during the course of the week. Camp comes back to the village two months later.
Read India also works in the classroom. In parts ofHaryana, Bihar and Uttarakhand states, teachers set aside the last hour or 90 minutes of the day to use Pratham’s methods. The same teachers who were getting zero results with their normal methods saw big gains when they grouped children by level and worked on basic skills. (In Bihar and Uttarakhand, gains came only when schools added community volunteers to work after school with the weakest children.)
Education in India is a paradox. India’s scientists and engineers are dominant in global technology, medicine and other fields. Yet 40 percent of its third graders can’t read words. “The Indian education system has always been good at the top of the distribution — which is where the elites are drawn from,” Muralidharan said. “The design of education systems in developing countries has historically focused on screening for high-performing students as opposed to adding value to all students.”
That is changing in India — Pratham is a big reason why — but slowly. “Now in India you don’t need to explain to everyone that kids need to go to school,” Banerji said. “But that children need to learn and understand — that has another 10 years to go.”
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Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.”