New Delhi: The learning level among Indian school students has improved slightly, especially at the lower end of the school ladder. However, the improvement is too little to celebrate, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (rural) or ASER 2018 released on Tuesday.

The report, which collected data from across 596 districts in India, said 50.3% students in Class V can read texts meant for students three levels below. In other words, one in every two students in Indian schools are lacking basic reading ability not just of their own grade, but also of those meant for their juniors. In 2014, this figure was 48.1% and in 2016 it was 47.8%. This shows that since 2014 there has been a 2.2 percentage point growth in reading ability among students of Class V.

Students at the same level who can do simple division has improved marginally from 26.1% in 2014 to 27.9% in 2018. Thus, both in reading ability and in simple arithmetic skills, there are some positives in the learning outcome among primary students.

However, even this marginal improvement is not there as one moves higher up the educational ladder, according to the data. In fact, there is a dip in learning outcome among Class VIII students both in reading and arithmetic skills. The percentage of Class VIII students who could read a Class II level text was 72.8% in 2018, a dip of nearly 2 percentage points from the 2014 figure.

“The slight improvement at the lower levels is a positive sign. However, the fact that one of every two students lag behind the curve significantly is a huge worry," said Rukmini Banerjee, chief executive, Pratham Education Foundation, which publishes the ASER report. It surveyed 546,527 students across 354,944 houses in 2018.

The backlog is still high, but there is a gradual improvement in the performance of government school students and, in some states, the growth is visible, said Banerjee. The improvement in reading ability among Class V students in Kerala has improved to 73.1%, nearly a 10 percentage point growth between 2016 and 2018. In Punjab, it has increased by 4.7 percentage points. In Himachal Pradesh, the growth is nearly 8 percentage points and in Chhattisgarh and Odisha the growth is around 7 percentage points between 2016 and 2018. Yet, there are states where the reading ability of students has gone down. These include Jharkhand, West Bengal, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.

The learning deficit has been a constant worry for India as experts belive that this has a huge impact on the economy. As more than 180 million students are in elementary schools, their learning deficit has a direct bearing on the efficiency of the country’s workforce.

“There is certainly an acceptance by all, including the political class, about the learning deficit and its impact on the economy. The improvement is because of a lot of factors, including efforts from parents, from schools and from governments. The big change, however, will happen based on administrative incentive and focus," said Yamini Aiyar, president, Centre for Policy Research.

States need to focus on improving learning outcome than on finishing syllabus, Manish Sisodia, deputy chief minister of Delhi, who said during the release of the ASER 2018 report. He also underlined that states, irrespective of their political dispensation, must work on employability of students so that they get better livelihood. In 2018-19, Delhi allocated 26% of the state budget to education.

The ASER report also found that over the years the country has plugged the access gap—only 2.8% children in the 6-14 age group are out of school. Private school enrolment has remained static for the last five years—between 30% and 31%. “In some parameters private schools have been better. However, some argue, that this is because of the socio-economic condition of parents and their awareness to improve the learning level of their children. Besides, private school dependance is varied across states," said Banerjee.

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