What our children know

One might think that the proponents and guardians of Indian education would be committed to eliminating ignorance. Not so. On one key point they are passionately committed to ignorance: they strongly believe no one must know what Indian children know.

The annual Indian ASER assessments, which cover a large sample of villages, have mobilised volunteers since 2006 to gauge how much children learn. This assessment produces an estimate — for each district and state — of children's reading and arithmetic capabilities. The ASER report is made available for the general public so that it has additional information on progress in education. Who could oppose this civic engagement in the nationally vital domain of basic education?

Yet there is a section of opinion ranged against it. Vinod Raina, a prominent education advocate and advisor to the ministry of human resource development (MHRD), compares the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing in America with ASER. But ASER is a non-government, sample-based, in-home, low-stakes assessment, while the NCLB is a universal, government-administered, in-school, high-stakes (for students and schools) test. ASER is more like America's National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which is a sample-based, low-stakes tracking assessment. Opponents of high-stakes testing are ardent supporters of NAEP as it provides them with a yardstick and evidence to disprove the efficacy of high-stakes testing. Yet ASER is not an American import: it is a homegrown exercise that emerged from the NGO Pratham's efforts to raise learning levels. It is now an Indian export, adopted in Africa and Pakistan.

ASER is a straightforward, voluntary civic exercise that absorbs no public monies. The assessment involves low stakes for the student and is done in a friendly environment. The Indian middle class resentment against high-stakes board exams and university entrance tests — both mandated by government policy — cannot be directed against a low-stakes-for-the-student assessment of system-wide performance.

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