Rukmini Banerji works on the ASER (Annual Status of Education) initiative, part of Pratham, in India. 

Experience has shown that simply being in school does not automatically translate into learning for students. As we enter this new phase of global goal setting for education, UNESCO, through its Institute for Statistics, has initiated a very timely online consultation about indicators that might be used to monitor learning around the world. As we provide feedback, it’s essential to ask whether current approaches to measurement can stretch to cover new contexts. Or do we need a fundamental paradigm shift?

Western countries have developed standard models to measure student achievement and learning outcomes by developing samples based on the assumption that all (or nearly all) children are in schools registered by a national or local authority. However, this is not the case in many South Asian and sub-Saharan African countries. In India, for example, a large and growing proportion of children attend private schools, which may or may not be on official lists. And while India’s primary enrollment rates are well above 95%, on any given day, actual attendance ranges from 60% to 90% across the country. In short, not all children are in school. By leaving out irregular or non-attending children who are likely to have poorer learning levels, school-based assessments of student learning paint too rosy a picture.

As we focus on the post-2015 sustainable development goals in education, calls for ensuring equity mean that we must find ways to measure all childrens’ learning. To do this, we must step out of “school.” Finding a representative sample of all children requires meeting them where they are. Many issues will arise as we begin to address children’s learning in countries that are new to learning assessment. As a first step, we must take a hard look at our own realities in the global south and develop methods and measures that reflect our conditions and that reach all our children. Assessments must be aligned to learning goals set for and by each country.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER)—drawn from practically every rural district in India annually for the past ten years —has sampled well over half a million children. It is probably the world’s largest annual household survey of children’s learning. ASER is a robust, cost-effective, large-scale model for measuring basic reading and arithmetic developed in the global south. In the past few years, the approach has been adapted and used in countries like Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mali, Senegal, and Mexico. And Nigeria is about to join the family.

This model reflects our contexts and conditions, where the majority of the parents of school-going children do not have much schooling themselves and are struggling to understand what learning entails. In our household-based surveys, the tools to measure children’s learning are easy to understand and the estimates are robust, reliable, and ready to be acted on. Western countries have developed schooling and learning assessment models to suit their conditions. In Africa and Asia, we need to work out our own paradigms for effective teaching and learning and align them processes for assessment based on our own contexts, needs, and resources. Importantly, we also need to come up with ways to communicate what we learn that make sense to teachers and parents and can be directly actionable.

By using the household approach and by working with citizens, ASER and similar assessments prove that it is possible to get valid, large-scale, and reliable data on student learning outcomes for all children at a fraction of the cost of other assessments. These simple yet powerful tools enable people and governments to see the problem and the progress of our children in order to focus on what needs to be done.

As we think about children’s education and learning in the post-2015 era, we must develop systems for measurement of learning outcomes and mechanisms for improving learning that work for our contexts. We need new pathways to seize opportunities and resolve problems for all of our children.