Work in Progress

The Hewlett Foundation Blog

School's Out for Summer: What Have Kids Learned? 

August 13, 2014 — By Dana Schmidt

This week we released a film called Every Child Counts (And Reads): Measuring Learning for All (there's also an abbreviated version and the French version, if you're interested), which explores an innovative approach for measuring what children have learned and making it matter to parents and policymakers alike.

Three years ago I was in rural India directly participating in one of these surveys in the almost unbearable heat of summer. I was with two Indian colleagues who were hard at work mapping a village in Uttar Pradesh under the direction of the village headman. We were squatting in the shade but there was no escaping the hot, humid air.. A crowd formed around us as my colleagues sketched the village’s different neighborhoods on the pavement with chalk. The crowd moved quickly from bystanders to participants, offering advice with hand gestures and rapid Hindi—“No, no, the school is across the road from the well, not next to it!” Or at least that’s what I imagined them saying. My Hindi was—still is— next to nonexistent, but there was no mistaking the interest they took in us and our map.

Eventually the villagers asked us why we were there. Why were we drawing a map of the village? What had we come here to do? My colleague explained that we were doing a survey. We wanted to see if the children of this village could read.

That day was actually a dress rehearsal for a much larger survey. My colleagues were preparing for the Annual Status of Education Report, or ASER (pronounced ah-sir) for short. ASER means “impact” in Hindi and is aptly named since the goal of the survey is to see what impact education is having.

This year, it’s likely that more children will finish elementary school than ever before. This is not just because there are more fifth graders in the world than ever before. It is also because today most children go to school, no matter where in the world they were born. In an extraordinarily short amount of time the world has managed to make the opportunity to go to school nearly universal.

But what about the opportunity to learn?

For a long time people were so focused on counting whether or not children were attending schools that they did little accounting for how much learning was going on. ASER is an effort to address that gap. So are similar surveys like Uwezo in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, Bèekunko in Mali, Jàngandoo in Senegal, and ASER Pakistan. Collectively these efforts assess over one million children, every year, in their homes. As my colleague Rukmini Banerji, Director of ASER, points out, the surveys help “demystify learning for mothers, fathers and family members—especially those who are not literate or do not have much schooling—and make it possible to see what learning looks like.” The findings show that a mere half of fifth graders in India and Pakistan can read, and a mere 20% of fourth graders in Mali can subtract. This has put pressure on governments to place due attention not only on whether or not children finish school, but whether or not they leave with the skills they need to thrive.

To complement the video released this week, the photo essay below explores these assessments in progress, as captured during that sweaty summer day in Utter Pradesh and other visits to the field.

(Use the "j" or "k" characters on your keyboard move up and down)

Children are assessed by citizens who volunteer a weekend of their time to complete the assessment in the village with the engagement of locals in that village. Many of them are educated youth like these two volunteers in Limuru, Kenya. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

The first step of the survey is to engage the village chief to describe the purpose of the assessment. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

Although children are tested at home, volunteers also gather data about the school. They look at whether there are toilets and other facilities. In some countries, they also check whether or not the school has received government grants, how much money they got, and when it arrived. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

In order to pick a random sample of households in the village to visit, ASER volunteers start by mapping the village—dividing the map into four quadrants and visiting every fifth house until they have visited a total of five households per neighborhood gives a random sample of 20 households, for example. Drawing the map in chalk on the sidewalk is a good way to engage the community in the assessment process. The volunteers have to rely on the generosity and support of the local community not only to draw out a village map, but also to house them over night in order to complete the two day assessment.(Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

The next step is to actually start knocking on doors. Surveyors gather general information about the household before testing the children. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

Eventually every child in the household from aged 6 to 16 is given a simple reading and math test. The assessment classifies children’s reading abilities according to levels that are easy to understand. Children who can correctly identify letters but cannot read words are at “letter” level. Children who have moved beyond letters and are reading words but cannot string together sentences are at “word” level. Children who can read several sentences of simple texts are at “paragraph” level. And those who could read a full passage of second-grade level text are at “story” level. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

For many parents, the most visible thing about their children’s education is whether or not they attend school. What happens when they get there is more of a mystery, especially for parents who are themselves illiterate. The assessment helps parents take a peek behind the curtain. As they watch their children attempting to read and complete simple math problems, they get to engage with what their children are gaining from their time in school. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

In the case of Uwezo, volunteers are able to leave behind simple materials in the home that help parents to engage more with their children around reading. Here, a young girl in Limuru looks through a simple storybook that was given to her at the end of the assessment. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

After the assessment results are compiled, organizations work hard to get out the word. Here, Zipporah Ongwenyi from Uwezo provides input on Uwezo during a talk radio program in Kenya. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)

As these types of assessments proliferate from one country to the next, so too do opportunities to learn about what is working well. Here ASER and Uwezo staff share lessons and experiences during the ASER National Workshop in India. (Photo Credit: Dana Schmidt/ Hewlett Foundation)