How covid hit basic reading and maths skills

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New Delhi: Learning levels among India’s school-age students have steadily improved over the years due to prolonged school closures due to the pandemic, a major education report released Wednesday compared basic reading and math skills to pre-2012 levels. About 43% of fifth-graders tested by the education nonprofit First Education Foundation can read second-grade-level text and 26% can segment numbers. In 2012, the figures were 47% and 25% respectively. Over the ages, the acquisition of reading skills has been more washed out than arithmetic. Bihar, Jharkhand and Manipur were among the few outliers that did well on the basic reading ability of class V students.

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First conducted in 2005, Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is a large-scale rural survey that tracks children’s reading and numeracy abilities. It surveyed nearly 700,000 primary school students across 616 districts by the end of 2022 – the first full-scale, on-the-ground, national survey since 2018 as the 2020 edition is not forthcoming.

Not all is gloom and doom though. Despite the start of school in the 2020 lockdown, the share of third-graders who could read second-grade level text (21%) or minus numbers (26%) was not greatly affected. Even before the pandemic, the numbers were dismal: 27% and 28% in 2018, respectively. Second, ASER conducted field surveys in three states in 2021- Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal. Data from these states suggests a more alarming drop till 2021, with Chhattisgarh recovering most significantly, ASER Center director Wilima Wadhwa told Mint.

Towards equality

Many children were likely to drop out of school during the pandemic. But the overall enrollment rate of 6-14 age group increased from 97.2% to 98.4% in 2018. The 2020 small phone-based ASER survey noted an increase in out-of-school children, but it appears to have been a temporary blip. However, enrollment may not always translate into attendance. Over the years, the share of students actually enrolled in schools is around 72% despite the increase in teacher attendance.

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Girls aged 15-16 saw the largest increase in enrollment rates, approaching their male peers. Such girls are most at risk of dropping out of school due to conservative family norms. But the out-of-school rate stood at just 7.9%, down from 13.5% in 2018.

The survey also indicated a clear shift from private schools to government schools.

outside of school

In the past, ASER surveys have recorded a steady increase in the uptake of private tuition by rural students. This trend gained momentum during the pandemic, despite the financial difficulties families faced. Even as schools closed, tuition-paid classes scored a big win as students looked for alternatives to combat learning loss.

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More than 30% of surveyed Class I-VIII students took private tuition classes for payment, up from 26.4% in 2018. The proportion of students taking private tuition was highest (about 32%) among class III, IV and VIII students. After fifth grade, public school students are more likely to choose tuition classes than their private school peers.

A state-wise breakdown shows that the trend is more popular among eastern and northeastern states and less so among southern and western states. Bihar, Nagaland, Manipur and Jharkhand have seen the largest increase in the number of students going for tuition.

Infrastructure problems

Basic facilities for girls like toilets, libraries and playgrounds are essential to ensure that students continue to come to school. Despite school closures, progress continues on this front. However, several facilities remain inadequate.

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One in four schools surveyed still lack drinking water Two large states—Gujarat and Karnataka—even saw their shares decline: from 88% to 71.8% and 76.8% to 67.8%, respectively.

The share of schools with toilets for girls improved slightly, from 66.4% in 2018 to 68.4% in 2022. Emphasis on teaching students new-age technology was also absent, as less than a quarter of schools had computers , in most cases not being used by them on the day of inspection. However, libraries were present in 78.3% of schools, and the survey found most of them reading books at school.

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