ASER 2016: Learning levels improve in lower primary, no change in Std 5, decline in Std 8

aserBy Wilima Wadhwa*

A lot has happened in the two years since Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2014 was released. In particular, there seems to be a general acceptance of the fact that learning levels are low and that something needs to be done about it. The government is in the process of launching a slew of learning assessments across the country; there is even talk about doing a learning census. A new education policy is being drafted after almost three decades. All of these are good developments, and one hopes that they will lead to changes in how teaching and learning happens in classrooms, and get reflected in improved learning outcomes for each successive cohort of children.

Between 2010 and 2013, ASER estimates showed indications of a decline in learning outcomes. What was more worrying was that the decline was primarily observed in government schools – private school learning levels were steady although not improving. In 2014, it seemed that this trend was arrested and learning levels seemed to stabilize. However, with no ASER in 2015, it was difficult to say whether the trend had been reversed. Therefore, ASER 2016 results were eagerly awaited with the hope that this year would give us some good news, especially for government schools.

And, indeed there is good news! Learning levels – both reading and arithmetic – are up in government schools. However, there is also some bad news. Overall, this improvement is only seen in lower primary grades and in particular in Std 3. There is no change in learning levels in Std 5 and a slight decline is visible in Std 8. In Std 3, the proportion of children who can read at least a Std 1 level text has increased from 40.2% in 2014 to 42.5% in 2016 at the all India level, and the proportion of children who can read at Std 2 level has also gone up from 23.6% to 25.2%.

aser2These changes seem small, but are significant given our past performance. Given the size of India and the diversity of states, often the all India estimate suffers from an averaging effect and hides the state level variations. For the all India figure to increase means that most states, especially large ones, are moving in the same direction. The thing to note, though, is that in 2016 this improvement is being driven by learning gains in government schools as opposed to private schools. In Std 3 of government schools, the ability to read a Std 1 level text has increased from 31.8% to 34.8% and the ability to read a Std 2 level text from 17.2% to 19.3%.

As always, there is a lot of variation at the state level. States like Punjab, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat have experienced large gains (in excess of 8 percentage points) while states like Andhra Pradesh have seen a decline. However, by and large most states have seen an improvement in learning levels in Std 3 in government schools.

With government schools improving and private schools holding steady, this also means that the gap between government and private schools has narrowed. The superiority of learning outcomes in private schools has long been the subject of debate. While the public perception has always been that private schools provide a better quality education, research has shown that just comparing learning outcomes between government and private schools is not comparing apples with apples.

Apart from school and classroom factors, there are many other factors that determine how, and how well, a child learns – her cognitive abilities, her parents’ education, and the learning environment in her home are just a few of these. Therefore, attributing the difference in learning outcomes between children enrolled in government schools and those enrolled in private schools to the effect of schools is misleading. It is well known that children who go to private schools come from relatively affluent backgrounds. They also tend to have more educated parents.

This affords them certain advantages that aid learning. These advantages are not available to children who are from less advantaged families and are likely to attend government schools. Once we control for these other factors that affect learning, the gap in reading or math levels between children attending different types of schools narrows significantly.

Between 2006 and 2014 private school enrollment increased steadily from 18.7% to 30.8%. During the same period learning levels either languished or declined in government schools while those in private schools held steady – the gap between them widened. As rural India became more prosperous, parents with means shifted their children to private schools and the pool that government schools were drawing their students from became relatively more disadvantaged.

These trends seem to have been arrested this year. For the first time since 2006, private school enrollment has not increased – in fact, it has fallen marginally from 30.8% in 2014 to 30.5% in 2016. There also seem to be signs of resurgence in government schools. In Std 3, if we look at the proportion of children who can read at Std 1 level, the gap between government and private schools has narrowed by 2.6 percentage points. Even for Std 2 level readers the gap has reduced by 1.9 percentage points. These numbers may seem disappointing to some and, therefore, not worth reporting. But they are worth unpacking a little bit.

aser1Consider the average child in Std 3 in a government school. The probability that this child can read a Std 1 level text is 34.8%, as compared to 59.4% in a private school. However, the likelihood that this child lives in a “pukka” home is only 36% as compared to 65.9% of an average Std 3 private school child. Similarly, the probability that this child has a television at home is 43.5% compared to 64.9% for a Std 3 private school child and the probability that this child has a mother who has some schooling is 48.4% compared to 66.5% for a private school child.

How would this child perform if she had some of the advantages that most private school children have? First, let’s give her a pukka home to live in – immediately the probability that she can read increases from 34.8% to 41.7%. Now, let’s give her a TV to watch so that she can see what’s going on in the outside world – the likelihood of her being a reader increases to 49.9%. If she has a mother who has been to school, the probability that she can read increases even further to 57.4%. Just with these very basic advantages, she is almost at the average private school level. If in addition her mother maybe reads to her from print material available in her home, she outperforms the average private school child with a 62.2% chance of being a reader.

Consider the case of Odisha and West Bengal. Both these states have affluence indicators that are either below or at par with the national average. For instance, in both Odisha and West Bengal, about 23% Std 3 government school children live in pukka homes compared to 36% on average. Yet, learning levels in both these states are above the national average. In Odisha 45.5% children of Std 3 government schools are readers compared to the national average of 34.8%. The corresponding figure for West Bengal is 53.9%. What both these states have is a far larger proportion of mothers who have been to school – in excess of 60%.

*Excerpts from the article “School Matters” in the Annual Status of Education Report (2016), released in Delhi on January 18, 2017. Download full report HERE

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