Beginning in 1996, the non government organization Pratham has worked with children in thousands of villages and urban slums across India. For much of this period, the focus of this work has been on helping children master basic skills in reading and arithmetic.
Quite early in its history, Pratham developed a simple tool to enable its staff across the country to assess children's progress in reading using a common metric. This tool consisted of a single sheet of paper with four levels of text: letters; simple, common words; a short paragraph consisting of four easy sentences; and a longer text containing slightly more complex vocabulary. Extensive use of this tool across the Pratham network provided a common framework and a common vocabulary which the organization could use to assess whether it was achieving its goals and to share learnings from different parts of the country.
In 2004, the new UPA government came into power with a promise of focusing on outcomes over outlays. The 2% education cess was introduced the same year. By 2004, enrollment levels in primary school in India were already more than 90% - the country was well on its way towards achieving universal enrollment. But no information was available on scale about the outcomes of primary education. Were children actually learning? Pratham's long experience of working with children suggested that although children were in school, they were not learning well.
And so the idea of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) was born: an annual, nationwide survey of children's ability to read simple text and do basic arithmetic that would engage ordinary citizens in finding out whether their children were learning. The tool used by Pratham for many years became what is now known as the ASER reading tool and a similar assessment was developed for arithmetic. Partner organizations in every rural district were contacted and the first ASER survey went into the field in late 2005.
ASER has been conducted every year since 2005. This enormous annual task engages citizens across the country in understanding and tracking children’s ability to read and do basic arithmetic via the participation of local organizations and institutions in every rural district in the country. It is the largest household survey of children conducted in India by citizens’ groups, carried out by more than 25,000 volunteers and covering over 700,000 children in 15,000 villages each year. It is also the only annual source of information regarding learning levels of children available in India today.