Two major surveys on learning levels set out to measure different things, but may tell one big story.

After our infographic two weeks ago raising questions about the data on learning levels in schools, I tried to delve a little deeper into why these anomalies were appearing for a piece that appeared today.

I wanted to get into the methodological issues in a little more detail here.

First let’s talk about ASER. Globally respected and extremely transparent, ASER constructs a representative sample of kids in the rural areas of all states, and tests their basic math and language skills at home. The National Council of Educational Training and Research (NCERT) (whose own survey I’ll come to in a minute) and many state education departments are critical of tests conducted at home, because they believe the classroom setting is the best to test kids at. However, as Prof. Karthik Muralidharan says in the piece, testing at home ensures that we learn about the learning levels of all kids, not only those who make it to school on that day.

Now for the NCERT’s National Achievement Survey. Conducted in schools, the NAS is qualitatively very different from the ASER survey. As the NCERT’s spokesperson explained to me, “It is aimed at finding at what kids know and not how much they don’t know.” And while some educationists that I spoke to said that the NAS tests comprehension which is arguably the most important skill for a child (which ASER doesn’t test), what the NAS does not do is tell you whether kids are learning ‘enough’ in schools.

Prof. Muralidharan’s point to me about the possibility that the NAS and ASER taken together might be indicative of inequality in learning outcomes is an important point, and I’m going to quote him in a little more depth here than I could in the piece. He says:

“This is consistent with a lot of evidence (both qualitative and quantitative) that teachers focus on completing the textbook regardless of where students in the class are, and the history of Indian education which has placed much more emphasis on high-achieving students than on moving first generation learners from illiteracy to functional numeracy. As an aside, Das and Zajonc (2010)… show that inequality in learning outcomes in India is among the highest in the world (second highest in ~50 countries after South Africa). I think a big part of the ‘elite illusion’ regarding quality of education in India (that is punctured by the ASER data) is that the Indian education system has always been good at the top of the distribution (which is where the elites are drawn from), and so it is a big cognitive disconnect to be told that average learning levels are so low (driven by a complete lack of focus on basic literacy/numeracy at the lower half of the distribution).”

ASER is rightly credited with forcing a national conversation on the quality of education, and is primarily the reason why cold enrolment numbers are no longer greeted with unadulterated joy, because many now know that it is no guarantee that those enrolled kids are meaningfully learning. As for why the numbers for some states are all over the map in the ASER reports – after speaking to them and to some independent experts, I still don’t know. One of the problems with criticism of ASER data is that it has usually come from a pretty reactionary (and usually governmental) place, and rarely with any data to back it up.

I’m hopeful that a parallel conversation on the quality of data can begin, while the focus remains on the real problem – the quality of education.