As I looked at the latest National Achievement Survey (NAS) report released last week, I recalled a meeting that happened more than a decade ago. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) had invited me to a meeting to plan the next NAS for 2011. I recall saying something like this to my colleagues there: “Yours is the best and the worst survey on the quality of learning in Indian schools. Best, because your sample and question design are impeccable. Worst, because no one can read your reports or make sense of them. It provides no meaningful input for policy making”. We are looking at one of the worst instances of ‘edu-cide’ in recent times.
Quality of learning is clearly the central issue of educational policy today. Almost every child in the relevant age group now goes to school. The number of schools is no longer an issue, though the number of teachers is still a serious constraint. So, the real issue is not whether children have a school to go to or whether they enrol in a school, but whether they learn something in the school and are not forced out (this cruel phenomenon is called ‘drop-out’ in official jargon) of the system.
Measuring learning is an arduous task
The question, then, is: How do we measure learning? Some of the experts on education, including Professor Krishna Kumar, who I respect most on this issue, opposed the very idea of such a measurement, as the numbers of any test fail to do justice to the multi-dimensional process of learning. That is true. But the parents, as well as the policy makers, need a simple, if crude, measure to assess the quality of learning. This is the gap NAS could fill but did not.
For the last 16 years, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has filled this gap. Volunteers from Pratham, an NGO, go to a large number of village homes and ask children to answer some basic questions on linguistic and mathematical ability. This large annual survey provided us with a simple but powerful picture of how poor the quality of learning in rural schools was. It shocked the nation with its finding, more or less unchanging over all its reports, that more than half the children in the fifth standard cannot read a simple paragraph from a standard two textbook in their own language. A rough and ready measure like this one could not meet the highest methodological standards of survey research or provide a reliable tool for comparison over time.
NAS provides an alternative. The breadth and depth of its testing are truly impressive. It tests students of standards three, five, eight and ten in all basic subjects. Tests are designed with sophistication. Even more impressive is its sample. The latest NAS, carried out in November 2021, covered 1.18 lakh schools, two-thirds rural, and included private and aided schools, besides the government-run schools. As many as 34 lakh students from different classes were tested. This allows us to break down the data at the state and the district level. The NCERT and educational administrators can pat themselves on the back for carrying out one of the most extensive surveys on the quality of learning anywhere in the world. I was happy to see that reporting and presentation of NAS have also improved.
There is one serious issue, though. Unlike ASER, the NAS test has always been administered on the school premises. So, it is hard to rule out the possibility of eager officials and anxious teachers ‘helping’ their students show better results. Therefore, a state-wise comparison of the level of students’ achievement, which grabbed media headlines, is best avoided. But it is an invaluable tool for comparing across time, classes and social groups.
What NAS tells us about school education in India
We can read four messages from the latest round of NAS. Three are easily available, but the fourth one is carefully hidden.
First, the quality of school education is poor. In broad terms, taking all classes together, the average score of students is less than 60 per cent in every subject (59 in environmental studies, 55 in English, 53 in maths, 49 in social sciences and 46 in science), except their own language. This picture is a little better than what comes across from ASER surveys. But we must keep in mind that NAS includes urban and private schools as well, and that this simple test was administered in their own school under varying conditions.
Second, the achievement level suffers as we go up the school ladder. For example, in class three, the average score for language is 65 per cent. It goes down to 62 per cent in class five, 60 per cent in class eight and merely 52 per cent in class ten. There is an identical pattern for maths and more or less similar for other subjects. Unless it reflects changing quality of testing, we cannot escape the conclusion that the greater the years of schooling, the worse the performance of our students. That is a serious indictment of our schooling system.
The third conclusion makes it worse. The greater the years of schooling, the wider the social gap in learning. In class three, there is hardly a gap between the performance of government and private school students. The private schools open a lead by class five, and the lead widens considerably by class ten. The same pattern holds for the difference between general category students and those from OBC, SC and ST backgrounds. The initial gap in class three is negligible but widens by the time they reach class ten. The task of education in an unequal society should be to reduce inherited disadvantages. But our school education seems to be doing exactly the opposite. It is an effective mechanism to transfer and accentuate inherited privileges.
First data on pandemic education
The fourth, and clearly the most crucial finding is carefully concealed in the NAS report. This was the first nationwide survey of the quality of education after the lockdown and extended closure of schools. So, the question anyone should ask is this—how badly has the school closure hurt the quality of learning? The NAS report does not provide data on this. I assume they were instructed not to do so. We must thank the Data Point team at The Hindu for digging up the previous NAS report of 2017-18 and doing a careful comparison of scores across classes and subjects.
The results are shocking. There has been a massive regress in the levels of learning during the lockdown period. The regress ranges from a decline of three percentage points in the average scores of all subjects in class three to about seven percentage point drop in maths and nine percentage point drop in science for class ten. The same effect is visible across social categories. The decline in rural schools is steeper than in their urban counterparts. Though gender does not show much difference, students from OBC, SC and ST communities have experienced much higher educational decline than others.
These findings corroborate global research on educational loss due to the pandemic and lockdown. As I had argued earlier, India is emerging as one of the worst sufferers. These figures represent a graveyard of millions of careers and dreams.
Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)