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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Rising school enrolment, plunging test scores

It is time go beyond mere numbers and focus on improved learning outcomes for all children

Given that children constitute one-third of India’s population and every fifth child in the world is an Indian, it is critical that every child’s right to development, as defined by the Constitution, is realized through an enabling education. Education is a tool for empowerment, and has been enshrined as a fundamental right of each Indian citizen through the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009, and a means to obtain other rights. RTE along with initiatives such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), launched in 2000-01, has contributed to almost two million children in the 6-14 age group enrolling in both government and private elementary schools across the country, resulting in a gross enrolment ratio of 106.3 in 2012-13 (District Information System for Education, or DISE, 2013). India boasts of one of the largest school systems in the world with 1.44 million elementary schools (DISE, 2014), 226,613 secondary, and 103,569 higher secondary sections in 2013-14 (Secondary Education Management Information Systems, or SEMIS, 2014).

Young Lives, a longitudinal research study on childhood poverty, has been following two cohorts of 3,000 children, aged eight years (1,000 children) and one year (2,000 children) in undivided Andhra Pradesh since 2002. The first cohort of children completed 12 years of age in 2006 and the second cohort of children were aged 12 years in 2013; the data allows comparison of 12-year-olds in 2006 with 12-year-olds in 2013. The 2013 survey has shown an encouraging trend of 97% of elementary school enrolment among 12-year-olds, up from 89% in 2006. Given that Young Lives has a pro-poor sample, it is heartening to note that no major gaps in enrolment have been found across gender, caste, or urban/rural location.

However, there are inequities in terms of the kind of schools children are enrolled in, with private school enrolment rising from 32% in 2006 to 41% in 2013. The highest proportion of other caste/general category children (71%) and the richest tercile (72%) were attending private schools in 2013, compared to 59% in 2006. This highlights the segregation of the poorest children into public schools, while those who can afford to pay the fees, opt for private schooling.

The survey finds a decline in mathematics test scores amongst children aged 12 in 2013, as compared to children of the same age in 2006. Mathematics tests scores for the same questions administered to children in the two rounds revealed that while 67% of the children in 2006 answered the questions correctly; this number fell to 53% in 2013. This decline is seen across government and private schools as well as all the wealth terciles. The most severe decline is noticed in government schools (20 percentage points) and surprisingly even the children in private schools and the wealthiest terciles show a decline of 12 percentage points each.

This unfortunate trend of declining learning levels is also ratified by other national studies. For instance, Annual Survey of Educational Research (ASER) 2013 found that while in 2010, about 70% of Class V children (10-11-year-olds) were able to do simple two-digit subtraction, the figure decreased to 54% in 2012. The National Achievement Survey, Class V (National Council for Education Research and Training, 2012), reported that children belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes continue to perform poorly in subjects such as language, mathematics, and environmental studies.

What explains the decline in learning levels?

This degeneration of learning levels can be attributed to a multitude of reasons, including the vast expansion of the number of elementary schools in the country, with no concurrent expansion in school management systems. The XV Joint Review Mission conducted by the ministry of human resource development (2012) highlighted that there were 25% vacancies in programme management personnel for elementary education at the state level, and this figure was 46% at the block level.

The focus of government schemes has largely been on improving school facilities and infrastructure, and teacher recruitment, with effective school monitoring and mentoring having remained sorely neglected.

A time-on-task study (ministry of human resource development, 2008) found that less than one-third of the teacher’s time in classroom was spent on student-centric activities, and students’ time spent on active learning gradually declined from 26.4% in Class II to 22% in Class VI. Archaic chalk and talk methods of teaching still prevail in Indian classrooms.

Furthermore, despite comprehensive continuous assessment being promoted, the no detention policy adopted by India which prohibits failing children in elementary grades, has, in the absence of robust regulatory frameworks led in many cases to no learning. This does not mean that grade detention should be advocated, but the no-detention policy together with the lack of accountability of government schools for children’s learning outcomes implies that children can continue in school until Grade 9 and then be pushed out when they are tested.

Achieving education for all cannot rest on access to schooling and enrolment alone; it requires meaningful curriculum, human resource management systems, and availability of qualified and trained teachers, that would enable enhanced student retention, attainment and achievement. It is time go beyond measuring mere numbers to focus on teaching-learning processes and improved learning outcomes for all children, with greater accountability of all stakeholders.

Renu Singh is country director for Young Lives India.

Published with permission from Ideas for India, an economics and policy portal.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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