Relation between No Detention Policy and Decline in Learning Levels

Learning levels (percentage of grade 3 children who can read grade 1 text) in public schools of India decreased by 10.7% between 2010 and 2014, as per ASER. I had earlier blogged on the declining learning levels in India, trying to bring some structure to the debate, using the available data.

There can be many reasons behind the decline in learning levels in India. Of all, No Detention Policy (NDP), that allows students to progress grades without failing, is attributed to the decline in learning levels. It is argued that learning levels declined after introduction of NDP through RTE in 2010.

There is a widespread belief on this hypothesis in policy discourse. For instance, 18 states agreed to revoke NDP. Recently, (Jan 13th, 2016), there's a news report where NITI Aayog seems to attribute decline in learning levels post 2010, to No Detention Policy.

It may not be possible to establish or disprove a causal relationship between NDP and RTE. However, certain questions are to be answered before we strongly attribute NDP to decline in learning levels. 

Some observations from ASER report below. Learning levels here means the percentage of grade 3 students who can read grade 1 text.

1. Decline in learning levels between 2006 and 2010: During 2006 and 2010, when there was no NDP, there was a decline of 3.3% in public schools. More specifically, 15 states out of 27 showed a decline during 2006-2010.

In other words, there was already a declining trend of learning levels by the time NDP was instituted.

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? 

2. Reversal in declining trend in some states post-2010. There are 5 states that reversed the declining trend in public schools post 2010, i.e. their learning levels declined between 2006 and 2010 but increased between 2010 and 2014. How do we explain that?

3. Reversal in declining trend in private schools: Learning levels in private schools declined by 0.8% between 2006-2010 and increased by 1.4% between 2010 and 2014. Also, the number of states with declining trend has reduced from 10 in 2006-2010 to 7 in 2010-2014.

It means that 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.

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?

4. Low-level of learning outcomes during no NDP era: 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 students who had to repeat grades even when there was no NDP was low: The percentage 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.

Over-age enrolment can be due to two factors - late admission in school or repetition of 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.

Assuming a similar trend post-2010, how far could these kids have led to decline in learning levels? It is possible that some kids from the other 95% have started putting less efforts due to NDP, but then such argument takes us back to the four questions above.

In summary, the learning levels were low and there was already a declining trend before 2010, the number of students who had to repeat grades before 2010 was low, there are states that reversed the decline post-2010, learning levels increased in private schools between post -2010. How do we explain all this if NDP was the major reason behind the low learning levels and the decline post-2010?

In usual discourse, there is a strong tendency to report the superficially visible issue as the binding constraint, attributing all failure to it. For instance, in a school with 60 students per class, a teacher would attribute the low learning levels to the huge class size. It seems a reasonable explanation but it needn't be true because learning levels may not improve even if the size is reduced to 30 because the actual issue is the lack of efforts by the teacher. S/he may be just reporting what s/he perceives as pressing problem and using it as an alibi for non-performance. Now, it doesn't mean that the class sizes shouldn't be reduced. It just means that it's not the main reason why students don't learn.

Is something similar happening with NDP too? If NDP was the main constraint that's leading to the decline, how do we answer the above five questions?

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. Understandably, there might be other reasons for revoking NDP, which may be fair and reasonable. But, the above 5 questions are to be asked and answered before we attribute declining levels to NDP. If not, we might be misdiagnosing the problem and by revoking NDP, we might get complacent thinking that we have resolved a major constraint. It's better to step back, ask tough questions, and get closer to the truth, before we spend our enormous energies on something that might turnout not to be the actual constraint.

Also read: My earlier post that explores the theme of declining learning outcomes in more detail -"What's the reason behind declining learning levels?"

Update: As one of the readers commented, there can be other reasons behind the dynamics of changes in learning levels. Hence, NDP should not be seen in isolation. I agree with it and I would respond it in two ways.

One, people who argue that NDP is behind the decline in learning levels implicitly mean that NDP is the main driving factor, if not the only one. Hence, I applied same standards above.

Two, in an earlier post, I discussed the contributions of other possible factors in detail. This blogpost is in some sense an excerpt of the earlier post. I did so because most of the debate is around NDP and hence thought of putting it as a separate post.


  1. In my opinion No Detention Policy and its impact cannot be understood in isolation of other provisions of the act. For example implementation of CCE (Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluations) are complementary to the NDP as they restore (theoretically at least) the accountability of the teachers towards learning outcomes of students, where NDP takes away from it.

  2. Thanks for your comment. That's a good point.

    I discussed it in my earlier post where I listed all possible hypotheses and dealt with each of them individually.

    On CCE: It can work both ways. There are some who argue that CCE has in fact reduced outcomes because CCE entails lot of paper work which is taking time out of other important activities of teachers.

    Having said that, the best evidence that we have on CCE is a Randomised Controlled Trial done in Haryana which finds that CCE has had "no effect". Of course, there are issues with extrapolating to all over India but at least what we have now suggests that CCE hasn't resulted in positive outcomes.