Data for better education, a brighter future for students

Learning outcomes data in the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2023 is, unarguably, cause for concern, but rather than lament, ASER, complemented by other data, must be used for corrective action

Updated - April 13, 2024 09:03 am IST

Published - April 13, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘ASER 2023 provides a peek into the aspirations and thought processes of the 14-18 year olds regarding their future’

‘ASER 2023 provides a peek into the aspirations and thought processes of the 14-18 year olds regarding their future’ | Photo Credit: The Hindu

As it has almost been a tradition since 2005, except during the COVID-19 years, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2023 was released in mid-January this year. And, as it has also become customary, the report has got much attention. Amidst a surfeit of insights that the report has offered, what has grabbed the headlines is the foundational skills of 14-18 year olds. As much as the learning outcomes data is concerning, practitioners and policymakers must dig deeper into the data to glean actionable insights for improving education and overall outcomes for India’s adolescents and youth.

On foundational learning trajectories

First, the ASER 2023 Beyond Basics survey was carried out in 28 rural districts across 26 States of the country. While the sample is not nationally representative, it is still representative of the district level and indicative of broader trends of the activities, abilities (including digital abilities), and aspirations of 14-18 year olds. The report shows that, overall, 26% of 14-18 year olds cannot read a standard two level text in their regional language.

This is concerning but the die was cast years ago. An 18-year-old in 2023 would have been a 13-year-old in 2018, and most probably a standard seven or eight student. In 2018, around 32% of standard seven and 27% of standard eight children could not read a standard two level text. Foundational learning trajectories are typically flat and become flatter in the upper grades, which means that unless children acquire foundational skills in the primary grades, they are extremely unlikely to acquire them in later grades, in the absence of focused interventions. Should we really be surprised then that one in four 14-18-year olds cannot read fluently?

But how do we correct the collective failures of the past when it comes to these millions of children? ASER provides data on the distribution of 14-18 year olds as well as the percentage of children with basic reading skills, by where they are enrolled. Basic calculations using these numbers suggest that 57% of the 14-18 year olds surveyed who do not possess basic reading skills are enrolled in standard 10 or below, while another 28% of these children are not enrolled in school, college or a vocational institution.

Can Indian teens’ ease with smartphones be used to help fill in their education gaps?

Though ASER does not capture school attendance in secondary grades, the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) 75th round did so in 2017-18, recording that in the secondary grades (standards nine and 10) attendance in rural India was as low as 60%. Thus, among the 14-18 year olds who are unable to read fluently, even those who are enrolled in school may not be attending school. Focusing on school-based reading improvement programmes without investing in encouraging and empowering these children to return to school and to reading may not yield transformative results.

ASER 2022 provides further insights into where these children are on the ladder in terms of acquiring abilities to read with fluency and comprehension. Of the children in standard eight who could not read standard two level text fluently in 2022, almost half could read a standard one level text (i.e., a simple paragraph). Recognising letters or decoding simple words is not the major challenge most face. They need guidance, practice, and lots of encouragement and motivation to read. Unfortunately, exposed to ridicule and embarrassment, many of these children may have given up and begun to hate reading now.

The availability of reading materials and books is a crucial factor in developing reading habits and abilities. ASER 2022, and later the State of Elementary Education in Rural India Report, brought out by Sambodhi and the Development Intelligence Unit, clearly indicate that only a small fraction of rural households has reading materials, other than school textbooks. Community libraries can create rich, vibrant spaces that foster reading, creativity and critical thinking. But just setting up libraries is not the solution. They need to be managed right, led by committed and enterprising individuals who can rekindle an interest in reading, drawing children, youth and adults to these libraries and nurturing an environment in homes and neighbourhoods that guides, supports and motivates readers of all ages, genders and abilities.

Children and careers

ASER 2023 provides a peek into the aspirations and thought processes of the 14-18 year olds regarding their future. In addition to quantitative questions around educational and work aspirations and role models, the ASER team conducted focus group discussions with children of the target age group in three districts. More than 60% of the surveyed children want to obtain at least a college education, with a higher percentage of girls aspiring for a college education (65%) when compared to boys (59%). When asked about their work aspirations, one in five said they had really not thought about it. Among those who had, joining the police or the defence forces was the most prominent among career options for boys, while becoming a teacher or doctor emerged as the most prominent career option for girls. Developing aspirations is important but youth need the support, mentorship and inspiration to evaluate these aspirations, identifying alternative better-suited prospects if available, and undertaking preparations and measures needed to fulfil the aspirations. ASER points out that almost half of the surveyed 14-18 year olds who have work aspirations do not know anyone else working in that profession, whether at home, community, school or even a public figure.

Further, focus group discussions conducted in three districts, as part of the ASER 2023 survey, discussed perceptions of 14-18 year olds around vocational education. In Sitapur and Dhamtari (in Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, respectively) vocational education was marred by negative perceptions of being the route that people choose when they are unable to bag white collar jobs. However, discussions in Solan (Himachal Pradesh) offered a refreshing perspective. Here, context-driven vocational courses such as tourism and hotel management were introduced in schools as early as standard nine and the result was seen in the perspectives of students towards these trades, which gained aspirational value. On-the-job training, certification at the end of the course and readily available information on career prospects encouraged students to aspire for related professions.

Technology use

In this backdrop, the increasing ubiquity and access of youth to smartphones, as highlighted by ASER 2023, and, earlier, the State of Elementary Education in Rural India Report, must be leveraged. Both surveys also confirm what we all know from our personal experiences — that teens use smartphones primarily for entertainment and social media and less for educational purposes. Youth will use smartphones for what they find interesting and what aligns with their motivations. Tapping into the incentives that youth may have to prepare and learn more about what they want to become, digital technology can equip youth with the foundations of their aspired professions and also bridge connections with relevant professionals. For example, while in school or college, youth who wish to become nurses can undertake online foundational courses on nursing and related subjects, or even relevant short modules such as administering first aid. All this requires committed collaborations among ed-tech agencies, industries and professional groups. But schools and colleges must take the lead and do more to understand and cultivate youth’s aspirations and guide them to the right platforms and avenues.

Data, and not just ASER data, when designed and collected with rigour and the right intent, highlight problems but also have crucial pointers for action. What is needed is to move beyond the immediate instinct to lament over the problem and dig deeper to discern where to act, how to act and who must act.

Neeraj Trivedi heads Organizational Effectiveness at the Pratham Education Foundation. Shweta Bhutada co-leads the Survey Unit at Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Centre

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