The sixtieth anniversary of the Indian Republic is a good time to take stock of the progress we have made in equipping future generations to face the challenges that lie ahead. The fifth Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) was released in New Delhi on January 15. Over the last five years, more than 100,000 citizens have participated in this unique annual effort. ASER is the largest survey of what children are learning in India. Every year in every rural district, ASER measures who goes to school, who can read and who can do arithmetic. What children are learning is a key outcome of the education system. Currently, for India as a whole, there is no other source of information at the district level that gives us this basic information every year. The five years of ASER experiences and evidence raise some critical issues for the country.
Each year a simple test of reading and arithmetic is used. Children are asked to read letters, words and simple sentences at Standard I level and an easy paragraph at Standard II level. In arithmetic, children are asked to recognise numbers from 1 to 100, do a two-digit subtraction sum with borrowing (Standard II level task) and divide a three-digit number by a one-digit number (Standard III or IV level task in most states). The assessment is kept simple; not because we think that children should not know more but because we need to understand how many children are still below this basic level in different grades.
ASER data from 2005 to 2009 indicates that in many states, children’s ability to read simple text or do basic arithmetic operations has remained low for the last five years. When there is change, or where levels are relatively higher, the change is slow and is often not sustained. Currently, almost 48 per cent of children in Standard V cannot read Standard II level text. This means that roughly half of all children reaching the end of the primary stage are at least three years behind where they need to be. This also means that only half the children finishing the primary stage are really literate. The situation is even more dismal in arithmetic.
Lant Pritchett, a Harvard professor, refers to this low equilibrium as the “big stuck”; almost all children are enrolled in school but at least half of all children in school are very ‘behind’. This ‘falling behind’ is not very visible; children are going to school and are automatically promoted, year after year, at least through the primary stage. And there is very little publicly shared, widely discussed comparable regular measurement of children’s learning levels in primary school.
ASER is like a thermometer. It only records the temperature. It is for others to diagnose and suggest treatment. But a few thoughts can be shared here. There are at least two main underlying causes. One, 50 per cent of rural school-going children’s mothers are not schooled themselves. So, on the one hand, parental hopes and aspirations from education are very high; but on the other, such children cannot get learning support at home. The family is not equipped to figure out that their child is not making adequate academic progress.
Second, teaching in our schools is geared to finishing the syllabus rather than ensuring that children have understood and are keeping pace. There are no in-built mechanisms in school for identifying children who are not learning, which can help them to catch up. This is true of government schools and most private schools as well.
ASER data points to some notable exceptions. In Madhya Pradesh, there was a large and rapid rise in basic learning between 2005 and 2006; similar increases in the basic ability to read and do arithmetic are visible in Chhattisgarh between 2007 and 2008 and in Himachal Pradesh. These states had decided that basic learning is an important goal and aligned their macro goals with their delivery mechanisms to ensure that achievable learning goals were being targeted. Alongside the government, there were large-scale community-based efforts to improve learning as well. These trends show that change is possible even in a short amount of time if all forces are aligned and aiming for the same target.
The Right to Education Bill proposes to have no examinations till Standard VIII. It specifies that teachers must regularly assess the learning level of each child and regularly apprise every parent/guardian about the progress of learning and development of his child/ward studying in the school. It is the responsibility of the ‘competent academic authority’ to conduct learner evaluation in a continuous and comprehensive manner, so that it tests the child’s ability to apply knowledge rather than rote learning.
It is very important in this context to have simple tools that can be used both by teachers and parents to start and engage in a productive dialogue on how to work together to improve the children’s learning. For basic learning, the ASER measures, methods and mechanisms — which have been used by many thousands of people across the country for the last five years — may serve as a useful model.
The new school year will start in a few months’ time, for which the Annual Work Plans for elementary education are being formulated right now. Most likely, the Right to Education Bill will be notified and operationalised before then. It is essential for us as citizens, and for the government as well, to concretely think of where we want our children to reach in the next school year and in subsequent years. There is a huge backlog of learning that has to be addressed. At least a million children are several years behind where they need to be. This ‘big stuck’ has to be urgently dealt with on a national scale, if our children are to have a fighting chance for real universal elementary education.
Rukmini Banerji is Director of ASER Centre/Pratham. The views expressed by the author are personal.