Hypotheses for declining learning levels
6. May be the declining trend nationally is only due to a couple of big states and situation is better in other states.
7. May be there's an issue with ASER's methodology
Observations from the ASER trends for the public schools:
These are trends at national level. The trends at state level have a mixed pattern. Some trends follow the national pattern while some states follow the opposite pattern. The picture is thus mixed.
UP especially is quite worrying, given its lower levels. The percentage of grade 3 students who can read grade 1 text in 2014 is astonishingly low at 13.4% in UP and it came to this level from 26.5% in 2010.
All of this is for public schools. The story is bit different for private schools.
Observations from ASER trends for private schools:
1. At national level, in private schools, the learning levels declined by 0.8% between 2006 and 2010. However, it increased by 1.4% post 2010, between 2010 and 2014.
2. ASER has enough data for only 19 states. Out of these 19 states, 10 states had declining trends pre-2010. This number reduced to 7 post 2010.
Overall, it suggests that learning levels in private schools have moved from a declining trend pre 2010 to an increasing trend post 2010. But, as like public schools, this is only at national level. We find mixed patterns when we look at state level data.
The answer still is "we don't know" but the above data helps us appreciate the problem better. We can make the following observations on the seven hypothesis listed in the beginning, from the above data.
1. On No-Detention Policy (NDP)
Data highlights important contradictions to the hypothesis that No-Detention policy (NDP) is behind the decline. They are:
1. There are 5 states that reversed the declining trend in public schools post 2010. How do we explain that?
2. The situation has actually improved in private schools post RTE. They arrested the pre-2010 declining trend and have instead improved their levels between 2010 and 2014. Also, the number of states with declining trend has reduced from 10 to 7.
No-detention policy applies to private schools too. How do we explain this reversal of trend? May be, the argument should then be that NDP affects public schools more than private schools. If it is so, then isn't the problem really with schools and not necessarily with the policy?
3. If NDP is the major constraint as it is being made out to be, why was there a decline pre-2010, when there was no NDP? We may note that 15 out of 27 states were already on a declining trend pre-2010 during which there was no NDP.
4. More importantly, the learning levels were low even before 2010, the no NDP era. Why were the learning levels low in the no NDP era?
5. The number of overage children in primary school, those above 11 years of age, fluctuated between 5.2% and 6.2% during 2005 and 2009, when there was no NDP. It's important to note that not over-age enrolment can be due to two factors - late admission in school or repeating grades.
Even after assuming that all the over-age children in primary school are due to repetition of grades, they still constitute only 5%-6%. It means that only a small section of students were being made to repeat grades, when NDP was absent.
How far could these kids have led to decline in learning levels?
Does all of this mean that the actual problem lies elsewhere and NDP is just being used as an alibi for non-performance?
We may not know answers to these questions as of now but these questions should definitely be asked in the debate on NDP.
2. On CCE
It's difficult to comment on CCE using this data but we there's one RCT on CCE conducted in some districts of Haryana which suggests that CCE didn't improve learning outcomes. It suggests that CCE at least didn't show any negative effects, as this hypothesis suggests. It might be difficult to extrapolate it to all contexts but it's the best evidence available.
3. Rapid expansion of schooling leading to degradation of oversight: We can't directly verify this by just using ASER data. However, if all the other hypotheses are ruled as 'major causes', then by the method of elimination, we are only left with this.
However, we can cross check this hypothesis using enrolment data. Enrolment data is the proxy for expansion of schooling. The Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) (percentage of kids of a particular age group attending the school) has increased from 84.5 in 2005 to 98.6 in 2009. It's a matter of judgment as to whether a 14% increase in enrolment leads to enough burden to decrease learning levels.
[Expansion in schooling should ideally be measured using increase in number of schools vis-a-vis increase in number of teachers. I have to yet collect data on that. I will update the post after it's done.]
4. Increase in private school enrolment:
One question that the data answers more clearly is that private schools aren't necessarily failing at adapting to new group of students. If it were so, then we should have seen a declining trend in private school learning data, with increase in shift from public to private schools. It isn't the case, nationally.
It's a possibility that may be private schools aren't able to adapt and the decline due to new students is being offset by some other factor. But, I can't think of any such positive factor that could offset the plausible negative effect.
5. Already declining learning levels by 2010
As we have seen, it is true that learning levels were already in decline before 2010. Nationally, the decline accelerated between 2010 and 2014 but there's a mixed pattern if it's analyzed at state level.
6. On contribution of major states
There might be some truth to it but we don't know the extent though. We notice that all the major states in terms of population are on a major declining trend, especially UP, MP, Bihar and Punjab. Arresting the decline in these states is going to be crucial in coming years.
7. ASER methodology
Apprehensions over ASER's methodology needn't necessarily be true for two reasons. One, ASER has been publishing yearly data for past decade. So, if there is an issue with methodology, there would have been huge discrepancies across years. It isn't the case. Two, the declining trend is also observed in other independent surveys like Young Lives.
Overall, this suggests an urgent need to invest in research to understand these problems better. Any such analysis should be ideally at a state level or a district level because there's a mixed pattern as we have seen. There are important stories at state level that are to be captured and matched with the data. For instance, Seema Bansal of BCG attributes the arrest of declining trend in Haryana (the decline is arrested post 2012 but it's yet to reach 2010 levels) to a series of reforms that the state has taken up in partnership with BCG. We need more of such stories to understand the problem better. Only then we will get a true picture.
As a matter of caution, one shouldn't get carried by terms like "arrested decline", "improved learning levels" etc because we are talking of very low learning levels and that too based on a metric of minimum competency (ability to read). We are far behind the goal of achieving true learning and that of higher order skills. It's important to remember this because often there are heated debates on relative comparisons between states and between types of schools based on the relative performance on metrics of basic competencies. Even if something is performing relatively better, we haven't even scratched the surface on an absolute scale.
Finally, to reiterate, there's an urgent need to arrest decline in the big states like UP, MP, Bihar, Punjab, Gujarat etc, since they constitute a large number of school going children.
PS: All the data is sourced from ASER's report on learning level trends.