The education system, as it stands today, doesn’t make the grade
India’s Right to Education (RTE) Act guarantees free and compulsory education for children between the ages of six and 14. The assumption is that if a child is six when she enters Class 1, she will be 13 when she starts Class 8 and 14 by the time she has completed eight years of schooling. How 15-year-olds are doing, especially those who have completed Class 8, is of great consequence for the country, especially since this is the first year after compulsory schooling ends.
What do we currently know about the status of education of 15-year-olds in India? The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey for 2018 provides some clues. The age-grade distribution from the ASER 2018 report shows that in rural India, 68.4% of all 14-year olds are enrolled in Class 8. As far as foundational skills like reading are concerned, slightly more than 77% of girls and boys can at least read basic text. When measured in this way, no significant gender differences are visible. However, the story in maths is different. Slightly more than half of all boys in the age group 15-16 years can correctly solve a numerical division problem (3 digit by 1 digit). For girls in the same age group, the proportion is less than 45%. Number knowledge and the capability to do arithmetic operations are the foundation on which further layers of mathematical abilities can be built. The worryingly low maths levels in these foundational skills are also visible when children do everyday calculations (see ASER 2018 on tasks like computing discounts or comparing price of books in different shops. Less than 40% of all children who could do division could calculate a discount in a shop or make a correct judgment about which books to buy, given different prices in different bookshops.)
In the past few years, whether between academics and researchers, practitioners or policy makers, the discussion on learning outcomes has intensified in India. While there may be ongoing debates on the different methodologies used in the ASER measurement and in the National Achievement Survey (NAS), there is consensus on the fact that years spent in school do not satisfactorily translate into years of learning. It is a mistake to see large scale learning outcome data as a report card of children’s performance. Actually, such measurement should be seen as an indicator of what the education system is able to do and thus provide strategic direction and urgent guidance for shaping national priorities. In the context of thinking about 15-year-olds, the ASER survey for 2018 or the NAS results from the year before, all point to the urgency with which we need to plan how we are going to help children in middle school years strengthen their foundational capabilities in arithmetic as well as build problem solving approaches and ability to apply these computational skills in diverse real life contexts.
Looking ahead beyond the legally mandated current cut off for compulsory schooling, there are at least two immediate, critical questions facing us as a country. First, whether as preparation for more education, or preparation for life and future work, what do we want young people at age 15 to be able to do? Is the completion of Class 8 syllabus the goal? Or is it the ability to deal with everyday issues of communication, expression, comprehension and problem solving? Our current school curriculum is purely academic in nature and assumes that all those who complete the compulsory stage of elementary education will continue on to secondary and then to higher education. Is this a reasonable assumption? India’s children need to learn different ways of approaching problems, critical thinking and collaborative work. These are what will equip children and young people to deal with what lies ahead.
Second, the 2019 amendment to the RTE law now mandates regular examinations in Class 8 at the end of the academic year. The answer to the first question outlined above will decide what the Class 8 examination should be. Should it examine subject matter knowledge based on curricular expectations? Should mastery be tested or will the assessment focus on satisfactory knowledge? The amendment to the law also states that if a child fails in the examination, the student will be given additional instruction and an opportunity for re-examination within two months. This means that an appropriate catch up instructional package will have to be designed, piloted, refined and prepared so that the weakness of students who have failed can be appropriately remedied within 60 days.
If the spirit underlying the RTE Act and the new amendment of the law is to come alive, there is a lot of hard work to be done by those running the education system. Without profound thinking about learning goals and consequent in-depth practical work to demonstrate how to meet them, the future pathways of India’s young people will remain fraught with difficulty. Whether to participate in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) or not is the least of India’s problems. India’s young need to move beyond basics. How to effectively define and design this journey will decide the fate of India’s future.
Rukmini Banerji is the CEO of Pratham Education Foundation
The views expressed are personal