AS EXPECTED, the pandemic and the resultant school shutdowns in 2020 and 2021 affected learning levels, impacting foundational skills in reading and arithmetic, according to the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) data for 2022. The drops were visible in both government and private schools across most states, and for both girls and boys.
Yet, hidden in this data is a glimmer of hope — and larger questions.
For instance, the percentage of children in Class 3 who can read a Class 2 textbook fell nearly 7 percentage points, from 27.3% in 2018 (the last full pre-pandemic survey) to 20.5% in 2022. The drop, though less steep, is seen in the case of mathematics too. The percentage of Class 3 students who can do at least a simple subtraction sum, something they should have learnt by the end of Class 2, dropped from 28.2% in 2018 to 25.9% in 2022.
While these are big drops, bringing basic reading ability to pre-2012 levels and reversing the incremental gains of the last few years, what’s significant is that this cohort of Class 3 students had never been in school before – 2022 was their first school year after two years of the pandemic-induced shutdown.
Which then makes this drop of 7% in reading ability and 2.3% in numerical skills look not so bad after all. And raises larger questions about the role of schools and the parent community in the post-pandemic era.
As Madhav Chavan, co-founder of Pratham, asks in the report, “If nearly the same proportion of children learned reading and basic numeracy whether schools were open or closed for two years, how did the children learn? Who taught them?”
It’s a point that also came up at a panel discussion following the release of the ASER data, when philanthropist Vineet Nayar, the former CEO of HCL Technologies who now runs NGO Sampark Foundation that focuses on primary education, said, “This report points out not just low learning outcomes but that our school system is broken and the incremental changes that schools are bringing are not very high. That’s why transforming and bringing innovation to school education is very critical.”
A mixed bag
The report provides some pointers on how children may have picked up key reading and counting skills despite being away from regular classrooms.
For one, despite wide variations in how children accessed technology during the pandemic, most schools, even in the rural areas, attempted to keep learning going with digital resources and lessons on WhatsApp groups.
Second, as the report points out, over 50 per cent mothers and around 80 per cent fathers have had some form of school education (Class 1-10), which suggests that they may have actively participated in the learning process. While only 6% surveyed mothers had studied beyond Class 10 in 2010, that has now gone up to 16% — a change that has evidently translated into greater aspirations for their children. In the case of fathers, the corresponding share has risen from 15.2% to 22.5%.
Besides, the report also indicates that private tuitions, which rose from 26.4 per cent in 2018 to 30.5 per cent in 2022, could have been a factor in helping some children score better over others.
“Bihar and Jharkhand are high tuition states – 70% children in Bihar and 45% in Jharkhand took tuitions in 2022 as compared to only 10% children in Himachal Pradesh and 15% in Maharashtra. It is entirely possible that this supplemental help in the form of tuitions was successful in restricting the learning loss in these states,” Director ASER Centre Wilima Wadhwa says in the report.
For instance, at the Class 5 level, Bihar had 30% students in 2022 who could do division, up from 24.1% in 2018. In contrast, in Maharashtra, the share of children in this category who could do division came down from 31.7% in 2018 to 20.1%.
Wadhwa adds that tuitions could also be behind the lower learning loss in math as compared to reading as “anecdotally, we know that tuition is used more for subjects like math and science rather than for reading.”