In his Budget speech on Wednesday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the government has “proposed to introduce a system of measuring annual learning outcomes in schools”. The Centre plans to include outcomes, which are class and subject-wise minimum learning benchmarks, in the Central Rules of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. However, educationists and activists cautioned that such a move would place more importance on assessment tests, which they fear will be the “system of measuring”, and not really help improve the quality of education.

On January 16, the Ministry of Human Resource Development came out with a draft document on learning outcomes that set minimum achievement standards for Classes 1 to 8. Prompted mainly by assessment surveys that showed declining standards of learning, and drawn up by the National Council for Educational Research and Training, the document covered three languages – Hindi, English and Urdu – and four subjects, including mathematics, environmental science, science and social science. The ministry invited comments on it till January 31. Based on the comments received, the document will now be finalised and included in the Central Rules of the Act.

Though wary of how the learning outcomes will be measured, educationists found some positives in the document: for instance, the focus on the process of teaching.

Learning methods

For each class, the draft spells out skills students would be expected to master and on which they would be assessed, as well as “pedagogical processes”, or teaching methods, that could help them achieve these outcomes. For instance, it suggests that getting Class 5 students to prepare a speech for morning assembly or participate in group discussions or debates on selected topics could help them “read independently in English storybooks, news items/ headlines, advertisements… talk about it, and compose short paragraphs”.

The document reads:

“‘Curricular expectations’ define what a child should know, be able to do and dispositions that should be acquired over a period of time… Learning outcomes derived from curricular expectations and syllabus may help all the stakeholders in understanding the goals to be achieved. The learning outcomes are generally treated as assessment standards or benchmarks.”

It includes specific suggestions for children with “special educational needs” as a result of disability or other disadvantages.

Quality and outcomes

A key criticism of the Right to Education Act – which ensures free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of six and 14 years – is that it is allegedly silent on quality. It lays down norms and standards that all schools must follow, including maximum pupil-teacher and pupil-classroom ratios, minimum working days, all-weather buildings, drinking water facilities, boundary walls and playgrounds. But quality in terms of minimum learning outcomes is not among them.

Private schools, especially those that do not meet the infrastructure and teacher qualification requirements of the Act, have been demanding the inclusion of learning outcomes. Their students traditionally perform better than their counterparts in government institutions, according to the findings of large-scale assessment surveys, and they argue that performance in tests is the true measure of quality, not availability of infrastructure.

But educationist Anita Rampal pointed out that whatever learning happens is based on the learning opportunities available, and that Chapter 5 of the Act lists out the ways in which children ought to be taught and the environment that should be created for learning. Infrastructure is key to this process.

Ambarish Rai, national convenor of the Right to Education Forum, which comprises various national education networks, teachers’ unions, peoples’ movements and educationists, agreed: “Teacher-training, availability of space and other resources, and basic facilities are all linked and contribute to quality.”

According to Rampal, making learning outcomes a rule under the Right to Education Act “will lead to a huge testing regime and teachers will start teaching to these benchmarks and the test”. She recalled that the Minimum Learning Levels introduced in 1992 had done just that.

Process matters

Allaying the fears of educationists and activists to some extent, the document focuses on processes, or activities for teachers to help children get the expected results.

“You cannot talk about learning without talking about the processes followed,” said Rampal. “If children are to learn through ‘activities, discovery and exploration’, as the Act states, the environment has to be conducive and the assessment bound to that.”

She said one positive factor about the draft was that it acknowledged the importance of spelling out these processes, even though, in her opinion, some are “very traditional and do not work very well”.

“But I am happy to see they have made the outcomes contingent upon the processes,” she added.

Gains, not results

Various studies show that the performance of school children in India is either on the decline or has plateaued with no signs of improvement. Education non-profit Pratham’s latest Annual Status of Education Report, released on January 18, said that only 19% of Class 3 government school children can read a Class 2 book. Its findings were more or less in line with those of the National Council for Educational Research and Training’s National Achievement Survey.

The Annual Status of Education Report also stated that children in private schools performed better than their public-school counterparts, putting this down to socio-economic differences. This suggests that backgrounds and learning environment matter, factors that standards and tests seldom take note of.

“How does having benchmarks help children of migrant labourers who may not fully understand the language that is the medium of instruction?” asked Renu Singh of Young Lives India, which has been tracking the educational progress of over a thousand children in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana since 2002. “It makes far more sense to measure the gains they have made over time than to see what percentage passed a test.”