The Annual Status of Education Report, an initiative started by Pratham in 2005, has been diligently covering the status of learning levels of children for over ten years now. A report card that measures reading levels, ASER has been useful in understanding the grim reality that our country faces, in terms of knowledge production and sustainability.

For a decade, the report gave a snapshot of children between the age group of 6-14 years. This year, however, the report seeks to tap into the age group 14-18 years, which is also the bracket that stays out of compulsory elementary education.  In the words of Pratham’s CEO, Rukmini Banerji, “ASER 2017 seeks to understand the ability, awareness and aspirations of the youth in the country.”

In 2016, when I was working with ASER, I was stationed in Kerala. My job included training the Master Trainers, supervising trainings at the district level and most importantly, working with the surveyors on the field. In one such field visit, as I accompanied a bunch of surveyors to do a mock survey, we entered a fairly isolated household in a village. Usually, on field visits, we tend to get unwelcome stares since most people believe that we are a bunch of salespersons looking to sell. But once we crossed the gate, two women welcomed us in, as if they were expecting visitors for long. While one of the women, the grandmother asked us sharp questions regarding the survey, the other woman, the mother of the child, urged us to wait for her son to come home and take the test. As we waited, I encouraged the surveyors to have a conversation with the mother while I sat next to the grandmother and had a conversation regarding her stay in Kerala. It was surprising to find that she had knowledge of Bengali in addition to Malayalam since she had migrated to the city years back when her husband had gotten a job in Calcutta. With a smattering of English words, she described her job and how she had learned to sustain a city.

Meanwhile, the son came home and began taking the survey. Despite being close to 15 years of age, he was struggling to do long division in the Math learning level test. The mother then tearfully informed us that he flunked his finals last year and would probably fail this year too, given his performance. The grandmother by then had started telling me that she had left her children with her grandparents when she migrated since they could not afford to bring their children up in a city. The subsequent result of her decision was heavy upon her children. In spite of attending school, all but one of her children dropped out from school. The mother of the son that we were testing, dropped out after Grade 10, married and was abandoned by her husband.

It was disappointing to see a child struggling with basics when his grandmother had managed to run a business, learn a new language and sustain in a different city. When I read that ASER 2017 would focus on the age group (14-18), I was once again reminded of the house and the grandmother who was disappointed that she could not educate her children and how that same story was on repeat, with her grandchild. The status of education in India lies within these sordid tales, that lie beyond numbers.