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Question mark over data on learning

Startling inconsistencies have been noticed in Tamil Nadu

A group of Tiwa children on their way to school in Karbi Anglong district of Assam.— Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar
A group of Tiwa children on their way to school in Karbi Anglong district of Assam.— Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar
Every year since 2006, the findings of the Annual Status of Education Report have delivered a shock to the Indian education system. An all India (rural) survey carried out by education advocacy group Pratham, the report shows the proportion of children in the 5 to 16 age group who are able to perform in tests on basic reading and mathematics.
Serious questions have been raised on the quality of data collected by Pratham and the government. While it might now be clear that children are not learning enough in school, it is not entirely clear just how much they are learning.
In 2013, less than half the children in Class 8 could do simple division and less than half the children in Class 5 could read two paragraphs of a Class 2 text.
However, when the ASER data is seen at the State-level for specific grades over time, inconsistencies seem to creep in. For instance, at the Grade 5 level, reading ability at the highest level appears to have dropped from 88 per cent to 32 per cent over five years in Madhya Pradesh. There seems to be a similar precipitous crash in the State’s achievements in mathematics in Class 5. In 2007, Bihar had a far higher proportion of children capable of doing division in Class 5 than Kerala. West Bengal shaved 22 percentage points between 2007 and 2008 in the number of Class 5 students who could read a story. Similar fluctuations were noticed in Chhattisgarh. Yet experts behind the report do not agree that their data might have problems, or should not be used at the individual State or grade level. “The sample sizes at the State level are large. The variations that you point out have been documented in previous reports as well,” said Rukmini Banerji, director of ASER Centre. “The issue of ‘learning loss’ is well-documented in the U.S. — especially in the context of gaps in schooling such as summer vacations. Clearly much more research is needed in India to understand children’s learning trajectories over time,” Ms. Banerji said.
Startling inconsistencies have been noticed in Tamil Nadu. Despite high levels of overall literacy, development and enrolment in higher education, Tamil Nadu has consistently appeared at the bottom of the all India table of ASER findings.
In the latest survey, it was the country’s worst-performing State at Class 5 level in reading. It was second only to Assam at the bottom of the table in mathematics, surpassed by Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
Unsurprisingly, the State has all but dismissed the report. “We do not agree with the findings,” a senior School Education Department official said, asking not to be named.
“In February we will be doing an internal study to assess learning levels in Tamil, English and Mathematics in all primary and upper primary government schools. That will give a fairer picture,” the official said.
At the national level, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has been similarly sceptical of the findings. “We believe such surveys should be conducted in school and not at home,”
NCERT’s spokesperson Hemant Kumar told The Hindu. The NCERT’s National Achievement Survey (NAS), which measures students’ achievements on 20 selected questions on mathematics and language, was comprehensive, methodologically sound, and a better measure of comprehension, Mr. Kumar said.
(with additional reporting by Asha Sridhar in Chennai)

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