In February-March 2021, ASER, India’s definitive status-of-education report, found an opportunity to meet children in villages in Karnataka to assess how the closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic had impacted learning. Here is what the data, one of only a few estimates of learning loss in India, show.
In the context of Covid-19, the issue of “learning loss” has been discussed a great deal by policy-makers, planners, stakeholders, and people at large. How is “learning loss” being estimated globally, especially in developing countries?
With children being out of school for more than a year and a half, there are growing concerns over some children not returning to school at all, and about potential learning loss.
This may be especially true for young children who are just beginning to acquire foundational skills like reading, and are less able to adapt to remote learning methods. The worry is that the lack of foundational skills, the building blocks for further learning, will impact their ability to cope with school curricula in later years.
A recent study by the World Bank has tried to simulate learning loss due to school closures. In their most pessimistic scenario — school closures for 7 months — globally children will lose almost a year of learning adjusted years of schooling, with long-lasting effects on lifelong earnings.
The study suggests that the effects on learning are likely to be exacerbated for children from weaker economic backgrounds who are unable to access digital learning resources, and also do not have adequate learning support at home.
Over the last year and a half, with lockdowns, school closures and constraints on movement, it has not been possible to collect data on key educational indicators. So how can the impact of school closures be measured for India?
It is only when schools open and attendance stabilises that we will begin to understand the immediate and longer-run impacts of prolonged school closure. For now, we need to begin by comparing evidence from previous periods with recently collected data.
For school enrolment, for the pre-Covid years, there are multiple sources of data, including annual figures from the government. However, most data on school education in India are based on school-level data collection. Until schools reopen and most children start coming regularly, such data will not become available.
On the issue of learning levels, comparative data are harder to find. Given the heightened public concern about learning loss, it is important to not only find and use trends over time for children’s learning that can be compared with recent data, but also use data that has the same methodology for sampling and assessment.
ASER has provided continuous data on children’s schooling and learning for more than 15 years for India. What do recently collected data show on these questions?
ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) is a household survey. The last nationwide ASER was done in 2018, and covered close to 600 rural districts across the country. It provided district- and state-level estimates for enrollment, basic reading, and arithmetic.
This data set could be compared with data going as far back as 2006. The next round of the field-based ASER household survey was due to happen in September 2020, but which did not take place.
In February-March 2021, we found a small window of opportunity to return to villages and communities to meet children and assess how their learning had been impacted. This exercise could only be successfully completed in Karnataka.
Though the data collection was done in only one state, it provides one of only a few estimates of learning loss that we have for India; with comparisons possible between the 2018-19 and 2020-21 school years.
What are the key findings from the survey in Karnataka?
Earlier this year, as part of the ASER exercise in Karnataka, 18,385 children in the age group of 3-16 years in 13,365 households were surveyed, across 670 villages in 24 rural districts of Karnataka.
Several findings are worth highlighting:
* First, as expected, there has been a slight increase in government school enrolment across all age groups. Between 2018 and 2020, the percentage of 6-14-year-olds enrolled in government schools increased from 69.9% to 72.6%. This shift away from private schools is understandable since the pandemic adversely affected incomes.
It is also possible that some rural private schools closed down during this period. However, until all schools open, till children come back to school, enrollment and attendance settle down, it will be difficult to establish whether this shift to government schools is permanent, or whether it will be sustained.
* Second, there has been a huge drop in learning levels in both reading and numeracy, especially for primary classes. The highest reading level in the ASER assessment is text at Std II level. By this measure, the proportion of Std III children in rural Karnataka who were at grade level in 2018 was 19.2%. For children who are currently enrolled in Std III, this figure is 9.8%.
Similar drops are visible for grades throughout primary school. Even among Std VIII children this year, there are close to one third of all children who are struggling to read basic text.
Finally, these learning losses are not restricted to a particular kind of school — both government and private school children have suffered similar losses. Overall, the evidence clearly shows close to a year of ‘learning loss’ in Karnataka.
* In the case of arithmetic, the drops are similar, though starker in the primary grades. The proportion of children in Std III who could do a simple subtraction problem (two-digit with borrowing) typically seen in Std II textbooks, fell from 26.3% in 2018 to 17.3% in 2020.
And what is the policy prescription going forward?
It is important to highlight the situation of the youngest children (those currently in Std I and II). These cohorts have had no prior schooling experience and most likely not much exposure to pre-schooling either. Once schools open, for these children, starting with Std I or II curriculum or textbooks will be a big mistake. In fact, they need to spend the rest of the year engaged in readiness activities. It will be essential to enable them to build a breadth of skills in cognitive and socio-emotional domains with structured exposure to and participation in language acquisition and pre-math activities.
The New Education Policy 2020 stressed the need to give foundational skills high priority. Now, as never before, this is the urgent need of the hour, for young children and for all age groups in the elementary stage.
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Depressing as these figures may be, there is a silver lining. In pre-Covid times, and in fact well before the NEP was announced, several states, including Karnataka, carried out large statewide learning improvement programmes to build foundational skills of children.
Implemented for several years, the “Odu Karnataka” programme was based on the well-known “teaching-at-the-right-level approach” — a homegrown response developed by Pratham for helping children to “catch up”. In the 2019-20 school year, over half a million children in Std IV and V gained between 20-30 percentage points in basic reading and math in a short period of 60 days of Odu Karnataka implementation.
Putting aside the grade-level curriculum for now and steadfastly focusing on basics will help children to not only “catch up” on what they have lost, but it may even be possible to go ahead with a stronger foundation than before.
(Rukmini Banerji is CEO, Pratham Education Foundation. Wilima Wadhwa heads ASER Centre, the autonomous research and assessment arm of Pratham.)
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