Pratham, a well known NGO working in the field of education, commissioned a nationwide survey on elementary education. It released ASER – Annual Status of Education Report on 17 January 2006 in New Delhi which summarises the survey conducted between 14 November to 20 December 2005. No doubt it was a marathon exercise covering 18,000 villages throughout India in a shortest span of time. Asking the volunteers to follow the centrally instructed questionnaire and guide map, the organization collected data from different parts of the country to write the report from Delhi. This work looks remarkable and unbelievable.

While reinforcing the common knowledge that BIMARU states have the notorious tag of high number of out of school children in the country, it discovers the enormous capabilities of children in Bihar, and Chattisgarh. According to this report, children in these states have good reading and arithmetic skills. On the contrary well developed states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Gujarat gives shock to the nation. Many children in these states do not have the basic reading skills. They are also weak in performing mathematical calculations.

It was conducted with the help of 501 civil society organization in 28 states and some of the union territories. More with graphics, pictures and maps, less with text, ASER takes safe route to promote education in the country. Covering 9252 schools, the report lauds the government efforts in promoting elementary education. But it wants the government to charge its battery to achieve education for all by 2010. According to ASER, Nearly 1.4 crore children are not attending school at this stage. It gives marginal difference as far as the performance of private schools is concerned. In comparison to government run schools, private schools perform better over 12 per cent.

In gender terms, girls are not far away. There is a narrowing gap between the boys and girls in the enrolment matters. There is a 13 percent reduction in the girls drop out rate in the last four years. Private schools accommodate more boys than girls. Reasons need to be assessed. But there is a slip of assumption that in the northern states, private schools got more boys than girls because of selective sex abortions. If this is so, only rich people are killing girl babies before birth which undermines all government propaganda against female foeticide among wealthy sections of the population.

Certain parameters are not clear from the report. Whether all schools in a village were selected for the study or only few were taken? What was the language used to test the mathematical abilities of the children? What type of private school was surveyed – recognized or unrecognized? Is the Hindi or vernacular language text was used to test the reading skills of children all over the country?

Sending bad signals about the poor state of education in the country, ASER also set the alarm ringing about the meaning of education. It gives an indirect conclusion that those who are going to school are not learning. Is this is to provoke people in government and runners of educational institutions to reform the pedagogy and the very purpose of education. Lot of questions than answers that is thrown in by ASER.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.