What's the reason behind declining learning levels in India?

It is a well known fact in policy circles that learning levels in India are poor.  The other lesser known fact is that learning levels are declining. As per ASER, percentage of grade 3 students who can read grade 1 text reduced from 42.5 in 2010 to 31.8 in 2014. Young Lives survey that tracks children longitudinally over the years also found a similar pattern.

The decline is puzzling, especially considering the increased attention to education in recent years. There could be many reasons for this decline. In particular, RTE was introduced in 2010. Some of the reasons are listed below.

Hypotheses for declining learning levels

1. No-detention policy came into effect from 2010, as part of RTE. It means that a child can progress to next grade regardless of the  child's learning levels. It is argued that it has taken out fear factor from students and parents leading to lower efforts from them, that resulted in this decline.

2. Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) also came into effect from 2010, as part of RTE. As per this, a teacher has to conduct a number of low stakes tests across the year. It is argued that the CCE framework involves lot of record keeping and it's taking a toll on teachers, taking time out of their teaching and planning activities. Since inspections place emphasis on record keeping, teachers spend more time on that as compared to other activities.

3. The expansion in schooling without adequate expansion of monitoring mechanisms might have resulted in the decline.

4. Private school enrolment has increased over the years. It could have impacted the learning levels in three ways. One, the better motivated students are taken out of public system. It thus reduces the peer-learning effects (children learning from each other).  Two, the shift from public schools might have lowered the parent accountability. Three, private schools aren't able to adapt to the profile of students who have joined newly.

5. Learning levels were already in decline by the time RTE came into effect.

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

Of all these, the first reason is the most cited one. There's a strong uproar against the no-detention policy (NDP) from many states. They want it to be repealed. The decline in learning levels is attributed to NDP.

In reality, no one knows the real reason. We also have limited data to trace the causal mechanisms. In this context, this post tries to provide some structure to the debate using the limited data available. The aim of the post is not to give precise answers but it's to raise more questions! Since RTE is the primary anchor of the debate, we focus mainly on trends before 2010 and post 2010.

I have compiled ASER data from 2006 to 2014. In particular, I have considered only reading data. It's primarily because one has to manually enter data point of each year for each state from pdf to excel. Please feel free to mail me at iterativeadaptation @ gmail if you want the compiled data. I am happy to share.

Percentage of grade 3 students who can read grade 1 text is used as the metric in following observations. Learning levels refer to the percentage of grade 3 students who can read grade 1 text. All the data is sourced from ASER's report on learning level trends.

Observations from the ASER trends for the public schools:

1. Learning levels were already in decline by the time RTE came into effect. Between 2006 and 2010, learning levels declined by 3.3%. However, the decline seems to have accelerated post 2010. It declined by 10.7% between 2010 and 2014.

2. In terms of number of states, 15 out of 27 states already had a declining trend of learning levels between 2006 and 2010. The number of states with declining trend of learning levels increased to 21 post 2010, by 2014.

If RTE is the reason for decline, how do we explain the declining trend in 15 states pre-2010? May be the argument then could be RTE accelerated an already existing declining trend. It's a difficult hypothesis to verify.

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.

3. Five states, Manipur, Meghalaya, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and West Bengal have a declining trend before 2010 but there's an increasing trend post 2010. Manipur and Meghalaya have a significant improvement.

4. In several states like AP, Chattisgarh, Punjab and UP etc the increasing trend pre-2010 turned into a declining trend post 2010. Punjab seems to be the worst. It went from a 13.6% increase between 2006 and 2010 to 10% decrease between 2010 and 2014.

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.

5. There are some states that continued on a continuous declining path - Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan, Kerala etc.

6. Two states, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar deserve a special note. The learning levels in Madhya Pradesh declined from 64.8% in 2006 to an astonishingly low figure of 16.2% in 2014. What a fall! Bihar fell from 51.7% to 25.3% during the same period (2006-2014), a huge fall too.

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.

Coming back to our original questions - What's the learning from the above story? Is RTE responsible for the decline in learning levels post 2010?

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.

Summing up

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.

Way forward

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.

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