Is literacy rate a good measure of education?

Literacy is broadly defined as the ability to read and write. The literacy rate is widely used as an indicator of education, for comparison purposes, across regions.

India's literacy rate is 74%, as per 2011 census. Indian Census defines literacy as 'A person aged 7 and above who can both read and write with understanding in any language'.

Does that mean that 74% of Indian population can read and write? The next question is - how does the 74% figure square up with the famous ASER results which show that around 50% of grade 5 students can't read grade 2 level text?

One explanation for the above inconsistency can be that ASER tests reading and writing skills of kids, while census has a significant section of people in adulthood. Hence, these kids might have caught up on reading by the time they reach adulthood.

It's a reasonable hypothesis but is there more to the story? What if there are issues with the way we measure literacy rate?

We need to thus understand the definition of literacy rate and mode of collection of census data to understand this better.

Let's start with the definition of literacy. As discussed above, literacy as per census is "a person aged 7 and above who can both read and write with understanding in any language."

Literacy rate collected by the census is self-reported data. It means that census enumerators ask households for number of literates in the house. The number as communicated by the respondent is entered in the survey. 

The question then is - is the respondent's understanding of literacy same as that of census's? More importantly, do the respondents have knowledge of literacy of the household members?

Brij Kothari of Plant Read explored this question. They surveyed 20,000 people across Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. These states together constitute 43% of school going population.

In their survey, the enumerators first captured literacy data using census method, that is by just asking the respondent to report the number of literates in the household. After that, the surveyors actually tested the reading ability of household members using appropriate tools. This is also the way ASER collects data, they actually test children, and not rely on self-reported data.

The survey results show a wide difference in the self-reported literacy and literacy as tested through actual tools. This survey was conducted in 2008. According to 2001 census, the relevant census figure for comparison with the survey, India's literacy rate was 65%. However, the survey showed that only 26% of the respondents could read and write properly. It classifies 27% as budding readers, who showed a rudimentary understanding of letters and their sounds. The other 47% were non-readers.

In other words, going by the literal definition of ability to read and write:

India's literacy rate is 65% as per Census, whereas the truth is that only 26% of people can read and write properly. Even if we use a relaxed definition of literacy and include budding readers in the literate category, there's still a difference of 16% between the census results and the survey results.

It thus raises questions about the appropriateness of using literacy rate as a measure of progress.

The next question is - why does the difference arise?

The researchers find that
90% children, who completed first grade, were immediately reported as literate by their families even though most could not read functionally
Only people above age 7 are considered for measuring literacy. Age 7 corresponds to completing 1st grade. So, parents seem to assume that all those who completed 1st grade are literates. Maybe this has to do with our psyche that equates schooling with learning.

These insights have implications for the way we analyze and diagnose policies, especially comparative analysis. 

For instance, Gujarat's literacy rate is 79% and Kerala's is 94% as per 2011 census. Let's do the same comparison using 2010 ASER data (closest to 2011 census). As per 2010 ASER data
  1. % age of students of class 3–5 who can do subtraction or more46.6% in Gujarat and 79.2% in Kerala.
  2. % age of students of class 3–5 who can read class 1 level text63% in Gujarat and 87% in Kerala.
As one can observe, the difference in actual reading abilities between Kerala and Gujarat is much higher than the difference captured by literacy rates, with Kerala outperforming Gujarat.

This brings us to the point that was raised earlier - what if people learn the ability to read and write in later years of life, after ASER testing, which is done in primary school? In this context, one must note an important difference between literacy rate and ASER. Both measure the basic competency of ability to read and write but there's one significant difference. Literacy rate reflects the cumulative effect of education till a particular point since it considers all individuals who have gone through the system till that point in time. ASER captures the snapshot of education at a particular point in time, in primary school. The cumulative effects (literacy rate) measured in terms of bare minimum competency make sense as a measure of education if the system teaches them much more than that. However, if the system teaches children only reading and writing after spending 10 years in school, literacy rate isn't probably a good measure of education.

ASER sheds light on this important trend. It finds that the % age of grade 3 students who can read grade 2 text is 23.6. It increases with grade; the percentage of grade 8 students who can read grade 2 text is 74.6, i.e. at the end of 10th grade, majority can be expected to read and write a class 2 level text. It confirms the intuition that ability to read and write is not the least that students learn at the end of 10 years of school. It's probably the only thing that they learn. They learn nothing more than that!

In effect, it means that when someone is considering literacy rate as a measure of education, they are implicitly judging the productivity of 10 years of schooling based only on ability to read and write. It isn't probably a wise thing to do so.

All these factors - methodology of survey, productivity of schools etc. suggest that ASER should be relied on for measure of education and not literacy rates. Literacy rate hides more than what it reveals. This has important implications for our analysis as seen earlier in the case of Gujarat vs. Kerala comparison. Kerala out performs Gujarat as per ASER metric while the difference is much lower as per literacy rates. This doesn't mean literacy rate as a measure should be discarded. We should only be cautious about these figures while making big claims using literacy data.

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