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ASER on rural literacy

As expected, the launch of Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2016 has generated discourse in the academic and policy circles. The findings broadly suggest deterioration in the quality of education.

Like every year, ASER has provided a vast household-level dataset – this time capturing 144 rural districts and 83,324 households. The report, which was released earlier this month, pertains to rural findings only. Let us sum-up some of the main findings. 

The report deals with a total of 13 main themes, ranging from access to schooling to funding structure of schools. Among the most important are the problems of increasing access and raising the quality of education in the rural areas. 

As for access, enrolment of school-aged children (6-16 years) stands at 81 percent, which is the same level as previous year. Out of the remaining 19 percent, 13 percent have never been enrolled in schools, while 6 percent drop out for several reasons, which include but are not limited to, the opportunity cost of attending school (child-earned income). 

In terms of quality, learning levels seem to have declined across all three measured competencies: Mathematics, English and regional languages. The figures for fifth-graders alone are alarming: 45 percent children in grade-5 could not read a grade-2 story in their regional language; 54 percent were unable to read grade -2 level sentences in English; 52 percent could not attempt two-digit division. In short, around half of fifth graders lack the learning competencies equivalent to grade-2 children. 

A public/private learning divide also exists. Learning levels for children enrolled in private schools are higher than for those enrolled in public schools. The difference reverberates across all three competencies. While gender disparity remains an issue with regards to drop-out rates, it is an even greater issue when it comes to learning levels. Boys perform better than girls in both literacy and numeracy. 

Wealth has repercussions on educational outcomes, too. The richest quartile has 53 percent children enrolled in private schools while for the poorest, 77 percent go to public schools. Similarly, in learning levels the richest outperform the poorest quartiles. 

Another troubling, yet predictable phenomenon is the disparity in results among provinces. Punjab, as expected, fares better on all indicators; Balochistan lands at the bottom. 

The most problematic figure is that of out-of-school children (6-16 years old), which for Balochistan is above 30 percent compared to the national average of 19 percent. Absolute numbers are not available in the report. 

ASER deserves credit for filling the gap in education statistics. But its findings are best used if taken with a pinch of salt. For instance, the study’s measurement tools for ‘quality of education’ include only basic reading and numeracy, ignoring critical thinking and writing, which are also crucial components of literacy. Such a narrow definition can lead to policy interventions that are inadequate at raising educational standards. Besides, a third-party evaluation could enhance credibility and robustness of collected data. 

Nonetheless, the report’s findings provide ample food for thought. Article 25-A of the Pakistani Constitution mandates free and compulsory education for all children aged five to sixteen years. A literal interpretation has led to a focus on increasing access, with little heed to educational quality. 

Pakistan, among other countries, has also pledged allegiance to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The SDG4 directs the provision of inclusive, equitable and quality education for all by the year 2030. This translates to providing access to quality education regardless of gender, wealth and social status. The results from Pakistan put red flags on all three dimensions. 

Talking to BR Research, data analysts at ASER also mentioned that the provincial governments have been working to improve enrolments, by partnering with organisations at regional level such as Alif Ailaan. But quality and equity get ignored in the process. These are the kinds of themes BR Research would also pick up at length in the coming days. 



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