Focus on our SDG 4 Data Digest Partners: ASER Centre, India

By Rukmini Banerji, CEO, Pratham Education Foundation and Suman Bhattacharjea, Director of Research, ASER Centre

The new edition of the SDG 4 Data Digest illustrates the range of partners working with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) to help countries produce and use assessment data to strengthen lifelong learning. This blog highlights the work of one of these vital partners: India’s ASER Centre, responsible for the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey and the global pioneer for citizen-led assessments.  

An education challenge in India is global challenge given the country’s vast numbers of children. Thanks to a decade of intensive efforts, almost all children of primary school age – 200 million of them – are now enrolled in school. It’s an impressive achievement, but India’s education challenges do not end once children are in the classroom. The question is: are they learning?

As we noted in the SDG 4 Data Digest, there is only one annual source of comparable data to answer that question: the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), the largest citizen-led survey in India and the first of its kind worldwide. This household-based survey generates estimates of the schooling status of children aged 3 to 16 and the basic skills of those aged 5 to 16 in reading and mathematics at the district, state and national levels. Facilitated by the non-governmental organization Pratham, it is conducted by ordinary citizens in almost every rural district across India.

Carried out on a one-to-one basis with each child, ASER has reached more than half a million children every year since 2005. The same oral test is given to every child aged 5 to 16, whether they go to school or not.

The reading assessment features four simple tasks. The easiest asks children to read letters of the alphabet. The second asks them to read simple words. The third includes a paragraph with four short sentences of the kind found in textbooks for Class 1 of primary school. And the most difficult task involves reading a slightly longer, more complex text equivalent to the level of a Class 2 textbook. Similarly, the mathematics test has four tasks: single-digit number recognition, double-digit number recognition, subtracting two digits by two digits and dividing three digits by one digit (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. ASER reading and mathematics tools

Source: ASER Centre, India.

Given the curriculum for each grade, the expectation is that younger children in Classes 1 and 2 will not be able to go beyond the first two tasks, and that children from Class 3 onwards should be able to complete all four tasks comfortably and confidently. The reality, however, is very different.

Three clear trends

Three clear trends emerge from a decade of ASER implementation from 2006 to 2016. First, children’s foundational learning levels are low and have deteriorated over time. In 2006, ASER reported that 53% of all children enrolled in Class 5 across the country could read a simple text at a level of difficulty three grades below. In other words, even after four years of schooling, just over one-half of all children could comfortably read a text at a Class 2 level of difficulty. By 2016, this proportion had fallen to 48% of children.

Once children fall behind, they have few opportunities to catch up. Even in Class 8, close to 25% of all children were still unable to read at Class 2 level. So around one in four children completes the eight years of free and compulsory schooling mandated by the government without gaining even foundational reading skills.

The same is true for mathematics. In the years leading up to 2010, about 70% of students in Class 5 could solve a two-digit numerical subtraction problem of the kind taught in Class 2. By 2016, this had fallen to 50%. Once again, significant proportions of children in Class 8 had not mastered basic skills in mathematics, and this proportion declined still further after 2010.

Second, while children do gain foundational skills as they progress through primary school, the learning trajectories of successive cohorts are quite similar and low. Students in India are simply not learning fast enough to be where the curriculum expects them to be by the end of primary school.

Third, each successive cohort seems to do worse than its predecessor, with 42% of those in Class 5 able to do division in 2007, falling to 38% in 2009 and falling further to 28% in 2011. This means that each additional year of schooling adds less value for each successive cohort.

This deterioration in learning achievements noted by ASER has also been confirmed by the government’s National Achievement Survey (NAS) and by a range of other research studies, such as the Young Lives study in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

What is the problem?

India’s schools have buckled under the weight of a student population that has soared in the space of just a few years. Because teaching in Indian classrooms tends to focus on transmitting the content of textbooks tied to a particular grade, only those children who are at grade level can make progress. Those who fall behind lack the support they need to catch up and are caught in a ‘low learning trap’. And most begin to fall behind from their very first year of schooling.

By including both enrolment and learning goals, Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) recognises that getting children into school is not enough. As ASER data reveal, an estimated 5 million children complete elementary school in India each year without having acquired even basic reading abilities. This gap between rising expectations and falling ability levels is a serious obstacle to India’s potential ‘demographic dividend’ through its young population and to the world’s chances of achieving SDG 4.

The expansion of citizen-led assessments

The ability of the ASER model to diagnose the core issues at the heart of the learning crisis using approaches that are simple, scalable, accessible and actionable has generated a global ripple effect, leading to a unique South-South collaboration known as the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network. In 14 countries across three continents, each PAL network member implements a citizen-led assessment that follows common principles adapted to the national context. These principles demand household- rather than school-based assessments to include all children, a focus on foundational reading and arithmetic abilities, and the involvement of ordinary citizens to ensure that the problem becomes widely visible. It is only when a problem becomes visible that action can be taken to solve it.

Given the scale of the learning crisis worldwide, there is an urgent need to generate robust evidence that can be directly linked to action on the ground to improve learning outcomes. We value our close relationship with the UIS, as we work together to ensure that our data supports the production of the internationally-comparable indicators for SDG 4 monitoring. Our experience demonstrates the important contribution to be made by citizen-led assessments. As a pioneering example of such assessments, we believe that ASER has charted a course that we encourage others to follow.

 About the Authors

Rukmini Banerji is the Chief Executive Officer of Pratham Education Foundation, where she has worked since 1996. Initially trained as an economist, Rukmini did her BA at St. Stephen’s College and later attended the Delhi School of Economics. She was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, UK, and subsequently completed her PhD at the University of Chicago. Rukmini writes frequently on education in both Hindi and English dailies in India and enjoys writing books and stories for children. Email:

Suman Bhattacharjea is the Director of Research at ASER Centre, the research and evaluation unit of Pratham Education Foundation, where she has worked since 2008. She has worked with government, private, non-government and international organizations across several countries, including India, the United States, Pakistan and Mexico. Suman earned an undergraduate degree in Economics with Honours from Delhi University, and Masters and Doctoral degrees in Education from Harvard University. Email:

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