Prakash Javadekar, the union minister for human resources development, recently told The Times of India: “A Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) meeting had taken place recently where education ministers of all states were present. The education ministers of 25 states demanded that there should be a change in the policy to promote all students till Class VIII. They wanted detention in classes V and VIII. Only four states said that they wanted no detention of students.”
In short, the government is thinking of re-introducing exams at some levels in the schooling system.
The Right to Education (RTE) essentially makes it clear that no child should be held back in class or expelled from school until he has completed his elementary education (i.e., up until Standard VIII). This was done in order to lower the pressure on students. But on the flip side, this basically means that there are to be no exams and students keep moving from one class to another, irrespective of whether they are good enough for the next class or not. The Act also makes it clear that no child should be required to pass any board exam until the completion of elementary education.
This along with other things that are a part of the RTE, have ruined the learning outcomes in schools over the years. The RTE came into effect from 1 April 2010. As per this Act every child between six and fourteen has the right to free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school.
As mentioned earlier, since the introduction of the RTE, the learning outcomes of children have come down dramatically. As per the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), in 2010, 53.7 percent of standard V students in rural India could read standard II level text. By 2016, this had fallen to 47.8 percent. The fall was greater in case of government schools. In 2010, it had stood at 50.7 percent and by 2016 this had fallen to 41.6 percent. Hence, only around two out of every five standard V students can read standard II level text, in rural India.
In case of mathematics the results are even more disastrous. In 2010, 36.2 percent of standard V students in rural India could do division. This had dropped to 26 percent by 2016. In case of government schools, the figure has dropped from 33.9 percent to 21.1 percent. Hence, only around one-fifth of government school students studying in standard V in rural India can do division.
What this tells us is that students are not learning what they are expected to learn in a given class. And despite this they are promoted to the next class, given that there are no exams. This is something that Javadekar wants to change by re-introducing exams. Indeed, that is a good thought.
The RTE clearly specifies that the teacher should complete the entire curriculum (i.e., the syllabus) within the specified time. This irrespective of the fact whether they are understanding things or not.
As economist Abhihit Banerjee said at a literature festival a few years back: “Under the Right to Education Act, every year you are supposed to cover the syllabus. It doesn’t matter whether the children understand anything. Think of all the Standard IV children who can’t read. They are learning Social Studies and all kinds of other wonderful things – except [that] they can’t read. They are learning nothing. They are sitting in a class watching some movie in some foreign language without subtitles. Hence, the drop-out rates are high. And I am shocked why anybody comes to school at all.”
So, while teachers are busy completing the syllabus, most students don’t learn much. Meanwhile, they keep getting promoted and soon they are totally lost on what is happening in class. The lack of regular attendance, both of teachers as well as students, has its impact. Furthermore, the focus is on finishing the syllabus. Given this, the teachers concentrate on that and not on how much learning is taking place. In the process, they end up addressing the needs of a small portion of the class which follows what is being taught and leave out the rest.
Hence, reintroduction of exams in class V and class VIII is not going to help much. By the time the student will be tested in Class V, it will be too late. The bad learning outcomes will already be in place and the exam will just hold him or her back in Standard V, without doing anything about improving the learning outcomes. Chances are he or she will soon dropout.
As economist Esther Duflo puts it: “Learning is not about enrolment, teacher-student ratio [or] having latrines in schools; it’s about if we are serious about learning.” The question is: Are we serious about learning? It turns out that we are not. A basic problem with the RTE remains that it expects children to be ready for elementary education when they enter Standard I. In fact, as Duflo puts it: “By the end of Grade 1, they are supposed to be done with reading…. It’s a complete fantasy.”
In fact, it is worth emphasising here that when a child joins Standard I, in most cases, he or she usually comes from a text-scarce environment. In many cases, the parents may not have gone to school or only gone to school for a few years.
Given this, the solution to this problem is not completing the syllabus or having exams. The solution as Duflo puts it is to be serious about learning. And how can that happen? Banerjee made a very interesting point about this a few years back when he said: “We did one experiment in Bihar which was with government school teachers…. The teachers were told: ‘Instead of teaching as you usually teach, your job for the next six weeks is to get the children to learn some basic skills. If they can’t read, teach them to read. If they can’t do math[s], teach them to do math[s].’ At the end of six weeks, these teachers were given a small stipend. They had also been given a couple of days of training.”
And how did the students do? As Banerjee recounted: “At the end of six weeks, the children had closed half the gap between the best performing children and the worst performing children. They had really improved enormously.”
So, what was happening here? The teachers did not have to complete the syllabus in this case, as the RTE mandates. They had to teach students what the students did not know. As Banerjee put it: “In the first four years, we should prioritise the learning of basic skills – forget about learning the history of the country, etc. You don’t have to know who Gandhiji was for the first four years. Let’s just concentrate on students being able to read and do simple maths. I think that such a system would deliver a much better outcome.”
Hence, to deliver better learning outcomes what is needed is a radical reorientation of the way things are taught in schools across this country. And that, as I keep saying, is easier said than done.
(Vivek Kaul is the author of India’s Big Government—The Intrusive State and How It is Hurting Us. He tweets @kaul_vivek)