Education challenges

India's rural school education report: It's grim all the way, but some states are way behind others

The 2016 Annual Status of Education Report released on Wednesday says a significant section of students in Classes 1 to 8 cannot read a Class 2 book.

Education non-profit Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report, which for 10 years has told us that the state of school education in rural India is grim, was back on Wednesday after a year’s break. The 2016 report, like all those before it, finds that very little has changed.

A significant proportion of children in Classes 1 to 8 in government and rural private schools cannot read text suitable for Class 2 students or do simple arithmetic their age group may be expected to do. The vast majority of rural children attend government schools. But children in private schools, by and large, perform better than their counterparts in state-run schools, which, as economist and ASER Centre director Wilima Wadhwa said in an introductory essay, is explained to a great extent by socio-economic differences.

Pratham tests a random sample of rural children studying in Classes I to 8 in their homes. For its latest report, it surveyed a sample of children in 589 rural districts.

Material for the reading test is at the Class 1 and Class 2 levels in the local language. There is a separate test for English. For mathematics, children are assessed on their ability to recognise numbers from one to 100, and do a two-digit subtraction and division of a three-digit number by a one-digit number.

Wide regional variations

While the national averages, that are most often reported, are worthy of dramatic headlines – 19% of Class 3 government school children can read a Class 2 book – they conceal massive regional variations. For example, only 7% of Class 3 students in government schools in Uttar Pradesh can read a Class 2 text, but that figure is 38% in Kerala and 45% in Himachal Pradesh. In some states, such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, more Class 3 government school children can read a Class 2 book than their counterparts in private schools. In Maharashtra, it is 41% in government schools against 38% in private schools, and in Tamil Nadu, 20% and 13.5%, respectively.

These findings are more or less in line with those of the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s National Achievement Survey, which is carried out once in three years, and of many State Learning Achievement Surveys. However, Pratham holds that annual surveys are necessary to build an accurate picture of the state of education.

Speaking at the launch of the report in Delhi on Wednesday, Pratham chief executive officer Rukmini Banerjee said there would be a report every year until there was a steep upward rise in test results data, which acted as a mirror to society.

In her introductory essay, Wadhwa said the Annual Status of Education Report was not designed to find answers to the problems of schooling in India. “Every year when the ASER report is released and there is no improvement, we are asked what needs to be done to improve learning level,” she said. “But ASER is not designed to answer this question. It is a rapid assessment that shows the temperature on the ground.”

However, Pratham has been part of several government interventions to improve learning outcomes. Its model focuses on mixed age group remedial classes, alongside the regular school timetable. Tests conducted at the conclusion of the period of intervention show improvements in basic reading and arithmetic, but so far, no long-term shifts based on its intervention have been reported.

Delhi, whose deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia was a speaker at the launch of the report, is one of the states where Pratham has been involved, something he failed to mention. In Delhi, Pratham has helped, among other things, design the government’s learning outcomes survey and its remedial teaching programme and Pratham’s Shailendra Sharma is Principal Advisor to the Director of Education, Delhi government.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article stated that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had been a speaker at the launch of the report.

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