A chain of falling numbers

A chain of falling numbers

It has always been upheld that education can lead to a better life. However, the education that can lead to it should be delivering the expected outcomes.

One measure of this outcome is the learning achievement of students. The only survey that captures grade level learning achievement of students across various grades is the National Achievement Survey (NAS) conducted by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). 

The NCERT conducts NAS for Classes III, V, VIII and X, presents district and state-wise learning achievement figures providing an overview of the educational outcome in this regard. This is a sampled assessment carried out periodically across government and government-aided schools (III, V, VIII) and in state boards, CBSE and ICSE board schools for Class X.

From 2017 onwards, questions are based on ‘learning outcomes’ developed by the NCERT-2016 and the assessment tools are rigorously designed following accepted measurement protocols.

The NAS was conducted throughout the country on November 13, 2017 for Classes III, V and VIII in government and government-aided schools, and for Class X in government, government-aided and private schools on February 05, 2018.

This article presents a brief overview of students learning levels for Classes III, V, VIII and X on the basis of state-level report cards published by the NCERT. Three sets of data are considered — 2017 data for Classes III, V and VIII, 2015 (Cycle 1) and 2018 (Cycle 2) data for Class X.

Comparing the scores presented to the figures from the previous years, the scenario looks grim. For the educationist following the progress of school level learning achievement, it is nothing new. However, the fact that the numbers which have been poor for decades, now continue to fall is a stark reminder that we are headed into serious problems and incremental efforts will not resolve this issue.

What one observes, fairly consistently across all states and unquestionably at the national level, is a dip in scores as students’ transition from primary to upper primary and from upper primary to secondary.

Despite spending more number of years in schools, students’ learning levels shows a decline in the latest cycle of NAS. While in Class III on an average a student can correctly answer 66% of the learning outcomes assessed, this figure drops to 56% in Class V, 47% in Class VIII and barely touches 39% by the time the child is ready to take the school leaving examination in Class X.

While disaggregating these scores at the subject level, one observes a declining trend across subjects. There is close to 28 percentage points difference in the Language scores from Class III to X and a whopping 47 percentage points difference in Mathematics. Science and Social Science, subjects introduced in Classes VI when assessed in Class VIII, barely reach a 44% mark and further decline to 34% and 39% respectively in Class X.

The situation becomes grimmer when we see this trend not just across classes but also over the years. On comparing the most recent NAS Class X data with the earlier cycle conducted in 2015, at the national level, there is a drop in average scores from 45% in 2015 to 39% in 2018. There is also a dip in average scores for every subject from Cycle 1 to Cycle 2.

Many factors could be responsible for this chain of falling numbers: illustratively, the nature of teaching-learning in the classrooms, teachers’ competence, voluminous syllabus, inappropriate assessments, inadequate student mentoring in schools, uncongenial school environment, inadequate teacher support on the ground, etc.

But what is extremely unsettling is that students who come to school with an enormous potential to learn, exit out acquiring less than 40% of the grade appropriate learning outcomes.

Training and workshops

What typically transpires in such scenarios, particularly at Class X, are school managements/governments investing in more training and workshops on ‘hard’ spots, greater cramming for tests/Board exams, more time on private tuitions, etc. All of these are superficial solutions to much deeper problems that cannot be corrected just before the Board exams.

While there are many factors that need attention, one of the most critical issue is the way we have characterised learning in our schools and what kind of approaches we adopt to help students learn.

We need to reflect on whether these are the most effective ways in which students learn or are these redundant and irrelevant ways of learning?

It’s time that we invest adequate time, effort and attention to teacher education, both at the pre-service and in-service to improve how teachers should teach and how teachers should not teach, in order to support students in acquiring the knowledge, skills and dispositions that they ought to learn in schools. Only then can we hope to see these score tables and charts swing in another direction.

(The writers are with Azim Premji University)