India's three-year old ban on failing students till Class 8 has attracted its sharpest criticism yet, with the parliamentary standing committee on human resource development (HRD) blaming the policy for consistently declining standards in reading and math across the country's schools.
The panel, headed by Congress leader Oscar Fernandes, has asked the HRD ministry to reconsider the policy that is a key component of the Right to Education (RTE) Act enforced on April 1, 2010, and aimed at getting every child between 6 and 14 in school.
"The committee would like the department [of higher education] to rethink its policy of automatic promotion up to Class 8," the panel has said in a report, available with HT.
"One must not forget that the main objective of RTE is to ensure the right of every child to have elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality which satisfies essential norms and standards."
The panel's recommendation that the UPA government reconsider the policy to automatically promote school students is built on a series of concerns that have echoed across India's schools for the past three years.
The idea behind the policy is to minimize the number of students who drop out of the schooling system because they've been failed and are too embarrassed or de-motivated to repeat a year.
But many schools have recorded increased absenteeism following the introduction of the policy, which many teachers blame on lower incentives to attend school.
Questions have been raised about the policy's impact on motivational levels of teachers and parents, and on the preparedness of students to handle the pressures of competitive examinations from Class 9, when the ban no longer holds.
And repeated learning outcome surveys conducted by both the government and by independent education think-tanks have shown a consistent dip in reading and math levels coinciding with the introduction of the policy.
When the RTE Act was first implemented, Delhi-based Devika Rani was a relieved parent.
Rani, who works with an environmental non-profit organization, feared parent-teacher meetings - and the threats they brought with them. Her son, now in Class 9, risked failing class, teachers would warn her before the "no failing" policy came with the RTE Act.
"With the new policy, I thought I would no longer need to worry about those dreaded warnings from teachers anymore," Rani said.
"I was so wrong. All that changed was the nature of the concerns teachers had, and that I now share."
Her son, whose name has been withheld on request, struggles to read Class 7 texts fluently, and can only now perform math sums taught in Class 6.
It's a challenge parents, teachers and policy makers across India are waking up to.
From 2010 - when the policy was introduced - to 2012, the numbers of standard 5 students unable to read even Class 2 texts increased from 46.3% to 53.2%, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) conducted by Pratham, a widely respected non-profit group.
The drop in math performances is even sharper. In 2010, 29.1% of standard 5 students were unable to perform simple two digit subtraction sums that involved carryovers. By 2012, this number has risen to 46.5%.
"There's a risk that we may create a generation of children who can hold up school certificates, but may not have even the most basic learning one would expect from schooling," said Rohini Srivastava, a middle school math teacher at the secondary boys school on Minto Road in the national capital.
Srivastava blames the "no-failing policy" for declining attendance in her classes. A 75% attendance rate was required for students to move to the next class, before the policy was enforced.
"Now, kids know they'll get to the next class whether or not they come to school," she said.
The standing committee has also argued that in the absence of the incentive - or threat - that comes with having to clear examinations to move to the next class, "even the parents, teachers peer groups may not always make efforts to motivate the child to have quality education."
For Rani, the Delhi NGO worker, a new fear has replaced the dread of her child failing till class 8. Now that he's in standard 9, he has to prove he has learnt enough to move to the next class. Even if the school is lenient on him now, what about when he graduates from school, she wonders?
"If his basics are weak, he'll struggle at whatever stage he finally needs to prove his merit," Rani said.
"That could be this year, or it could be when he has to apply to college. But that time will come and I don't know if he'll be able to cope."