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Language skills dip, maths slightly better: ASER data

By, New Delhi
Jan 18, 2024 04:16 AM IST

The report is based on a survey of 34,745 people between the ages of 14 and 18 in both government and private institutes across 28 districts in 26 states.

​One in every four persons between the ages of 14 and 18 in rural India cannot fluently read a Class 2 level text in their own language, and at least 42.7% cannot read sentences in English, according to the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey released on Wednesday which shows an improvement in enrolment since this cohort was last surveyed in 2017, a marginal dip in language skills, and a slight improvement in arithmetic abilities.

School students going to school on cold and foggy winter morning, in New Delhi, India, on Friday. (Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times)

The ASER 2023 report titled “Beyond Basics”, led by Pratham Foundation, an education-focussed non-profit, is based on a survey of 34,745 people between the ages of 14 and 18 in both government and private institutes across 28 districts in 26 states.

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According to the report, 86.8% of the respondents are enrolled in either school or college, compared to 85.6% in 2017, although the enrolment percentage drops with age. For instance, the proportion of youth who are currently not enrolled in school or college is 3.9% among 14-year-olds, 10.9% of 16-year-olds and 32.6% of 18-year-olds. That would suggest that a third of the respondents do not study beyond Class 12 (it can’t be said whether they take the school leaving exam or not), a statistic that does not bode well for a country that is looking to parlay its demographic dividend into economic growth. The most common reason (one in four) for boys to drop out is “lack of interest” while for girls (one in five) it is “family constraints”.

Ameeta Mulla Wattal, an educationist and Chairperson DLF Foundation Schools and Scholarship Programmes, said between 2017, the last time this age group was covered, and 2023, there had been at least three years of the Covid-19 pandemic that were completely blackout for children especially in rural India. “There always have been learning gaps in case of foundation literacy and numeracy and Covid has even broadened these gaps,” she said.

Still, the proportion shows an improvement over the years, the report said, proving that fears about older children dropping out wholesale as a result of Covid have “turned out to be unfounded”. “The proportion of out of school children and youth has been secularly declining, led by the government’s push to universalise secondary education,” the report added.

What has also improved is the gender gap. In 2017, 16% of girls aged 14-18 were not in school/college, compared to 11.9% of the boys– a gap of 4.1 percentage points. In 2023, that gap has narrowed to just 0.2 percentage points.

That clearly shows that young people are staying in school longer -- although this does not seem to be making too much of a difference in their so-called foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN). The Survey evaluated the youth on the basis of four parameters– basic reading, math and English abilities; application of basic skills to everyday calculations; reading and understanding written instructions; and financial calculations that need to be done in real life.

In 2017, 76.6% of 14-18 year-olds could read a Class 2 level text, while in 2023, this number is slightly lower at 73.6%. In arithmetic, in 2017, 39.5% of youth could do a simple (class 3-4 level) division problem, while in 2023, this proportion is slightly higher at 43.3%.

In terms of calculation, the report highlighted that while nearly 85% of surveyed youth can measure length using a scale when the starting point is 0 cm, the proportion drops sharply to 39% when the starting point is moved.

Female students (76%) do better than males (70.9%) in reading class 2 level texts in their regional language, but male students do better than their female counterparts in arithmetic and English reading.

Noting that a sizeable proportion of young people do not have basic reading and numeracy skills, the report stated: “Of course, if a student has progressed through the school system without acquiring these foundational abilities, they are unlikely to acquire them later since teachers follow the grade curriculum and assume that students in their grade have met the requirements of the previous grade.”

“It is very good that they brought the issue into the public eye and it is important that we take our lessons from here and focus on these aspects. It is important that the government agencies must understand that with the upcoming national curriculum framework under the national education policy (NEP) 2020, it is integral to have a lot of teacher training and focus on foundational years. Since we are talking about children in the age of 14-18 years, there has to be some kind of programme focussing on middle and high school literacy and numeracy as well to fill the gap,” Wattal said.

For the first time, ASER also recorded the course stream of students enrolled in classes 11 and 12 and in college: 54% of the students were enrolled in humanities, followed by science (33.4%), and commerce (9.3%). It found that female students are less likely to be enrolled in STEM streams (28.1%) than male ones (36.3%).The study found that 92.7% students enrolled in STEM streams in classes 11 and 12 could read at least a class 2 level text against 86.4% commerce and 87% humanities students.

“... and 69.7% could do the division problem. This further underscores the point that FLN deficits need to be corrected at the time they occur, otherwise learning deficits just accumulate as students are confronted with higher level competencies as they advance through the school system,” the report said.

Sonal Kapoor, Founder Director, Protsahan India Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO), “Implementing targeted mentorship programs and showcasing successful female role models in STEM who can inspire and uplift girls, paving the way for their increased participation. Moreover, integrating innovative teaching methodologies that make STEM subjects more relatable and engaging for girls can enhance their interest and confidence in pursuing these fields. Collaborative initiatives between educational institutions, NGOs, and industry partners can facilitate exposure to real-world applications of STEM, demystifying the subjects and instilling a sense of purpose and relevance.”

Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, said that “catch up” efforts for foundational literacy and numeracy are needed for a significant portion of the 14-18 population, not only for doing better in school but “also for everyday needs.” “Data from ASER 2023 indicates that building foundational literacy and numeracy may be needed for about a fourth of youth in the 14-18 age group. The NEP 2020 recognizes the need for “catch up” in the case of those who have fallen behind. Thus, programs could be put in place, if they do not already exist, to help students from Std VIII and higher grades who are lagging behind academically,” she added.

The survey also mapped the digital awareness of students and highlighted that 90% of all young people surveyed came from households that had a smartphone and that they knew how to use it. “Of those who can use a smartphone, males (43.7%) are more than twice as likely to have their own smartphone than females (19.8%). Females are less likely to know how to use a smartphone or computer as compared to males,” it highlighted.

Among youth who can use a smartphone, two-thirds report having used it for some education related activity, such as watching online videos related to studies, solving doubts, or exchanging notes. “Close to 80% of the youth report having used their smartphone to do an entertainment related activity, such as watching a movie or listening to music, during the reference week,” the report stated.

“For addressing the digital gender divide requires a comprehensive grassroots strategy encompassing both access and proficiency. Initiatives to provide affordable or subsidized digital devices to girls, coupled with training programs that enhance their digital literacy, are essential. Community-based workshops, led by female tech experts, can contribute significantly to empowering girls with the skills and confidence needed to navigate the growing digital landscape in the country,” Kapoor added.

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