The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022 is a nationwide citizen-led household survey that provides a snapshot of children’s schooling and learning in rural India. It covered almost all rural districts of India and generated district, state, and national level estimates of children’s enrollment and foundational skills.
Information about enrollment in school or preschool was collected for all children aged 3-16, and children aged 5-16 were tested one-on-one to understand their reading, arithmetic, and English-language skills. Findings from ASER 2022 come at a time when children are back in school after an extended period of school closures, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Evidence on the status of children’s schooling and foundational learning helps us understand how best to support these processes going forward, which the ASER report helps to explain better.
The Centre for New Economics Studies’ (CNES) InfoSphere team takes a closer look at the ASER report and its key findings in relation to asymmetric learning outcomes across India’s education landscape.
This essay, drawn from InfoSphere’s latest edition’s research, takes a closer and deeper look into specific learning outcomes such as reading ability, arithmetic ability, and gaps in resources to determine certain outcomes. It also attempts to draw a comparison between the pre- and post-pandemic effects on learning and the growing impact of paid tuition classes. It also goes a step further to understand the effects of the National Education Policy 2020.
As per ASER’s study, the reading ability has dropped to pre-2012 levels. This drop is seen across both government and private schools (in most states, and among both boys and girls). Although there has been a decline in basic reading comprehension levels among Class VIII pupils, the chart above highlights that the decline has been less severe than trends seen in Classes III and V.
For further analysis, our team divided Indian states according to the various regional zones highlighted above. Western and southern states have witnessed the highest decline in terms of reading capacity among students of class III.
This can be a result of Kerala and Maharashtra (with a stronger state focus and public investment in education) performing poorly over the previous four years. This may also be due to the wide gap seen in the digitisation processes (in educational services) being divergent across regions and states, seen during the pandemic.
Even though the northern States witnessed a decline, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which used to perform poorly as compared to other states, improved their performance in the Class III reading ability metric in the 2023 report. Unfortunately, there has been a drop in reading ability for class III across all regions of India.
The eastern states witnessed a marginal fall in the class V reading ability (a fall of a mere 1.3 percentage points on average). The southern states have the lowest reading ability in class III as well as class V among the rest of India. A fall in reading ability in Class V has been witnessed in almost all regions of India. The central and eastern states have exceeded their 2018 performance levels and have increased their reading ability in class VIII by 3.2 and 6.8 percentage points respectively. The western states have the lowest reading ability in class VIII among the rest of India.
Finding 2: Steep decline in Arithmetic ability from 2018-2022
Across class grades nationwide, the children’s fundamental arithmetic proficiency decreased from levels seen in 2018. Compared to basic reading, the observed decrease appeared to be less abrupt. The percentage of Class III students across India who can at least perform subtraction decreased from 28.2% in 2018 to 25.9% in 2022.
In India, the percentage of Class V students who can divide has also decreased from 27.9% in 2018 to 25.6% in 2022. Class VIII students demonstrate complete fundamental arithmetic. The percentage of students that can divide has slightly risen from 44.1% in 2018 to 44.7% in 2022. This improvement could be seen due to more girls and students enrolled in public schools, as outcomes for boys and students in private schools have declined since 2018.
Western states marginally increased their arithmetic ability in Class III by 0.1 percentage points. While a fall in class III arithmetic ability has been observed in all regions, the central states have the lowest average.
While the northeastern states appear to have the lowest arithmetic ability in class V on average, the eastern states performed well in this metric, increasing their arithmetic ability in class V by 4.8 percentage points on average.
Southern states witnessed the largest fall in this metric. The eastern, central, and southern states have improved their arithmetic ability in class VII, with the central states witnessing the highest growth. Even though western states had seen the highest decline, northern states performed the worst in this regard.
An interesting fact observed in the findings of the ASER report is that girls tend to perform better in reading skills in classes V and VIII than boys. Meanwhile, boys are better at arithmetic at the Grade V and Grade VIII levels than girls.
Reasons to ascertain may require closer ethnographic research, but this is something we have observed in our fieldwork in rural Assam (during a project undertaken in collaboration with the ant) and in the Narela-Bawana area (during a project undertaken in collaboration with Navjyoti foundation).
Access to digital infrastructure
As seen in the above graph, there exists a huge gender gap in ‘access to’ mobile internet users as well as ‘access to’ smartphones in India. During the pandemic-induced lockdowns, due to the closure of schools and inequitable distribution of internet resources, due to pre-disposed ‘access inequities’, it soon became evident that boys in schools had more access to digital infrastructures (such as mobile phones), than girls.
An ICUBE 2021 study – Internet in India stated that rural India had a 37% internet penetration, while urban India had a 69% internet penetration. Hence, the digital gulf present on markers of gender, as well as geographies, adversely impacted girls in rural areas in the worst possible way. Many even left schooling and were asked to contribute more to household chores, which disrupted their education for long.
Rise in private tuition classes
The “Household consumption on Education in India” report of 2017-18 (prepared by the National Statistics Office) highlighted a steep rise in private tuition classes across India. The post-pandemic era has seen an escalation in the incidences of students undertaking paid tuition classes after school. The ASER 2022 report too highlighted a four percentage point increase in the proportion of students taking tuition vis-à-vis the pre-COVID-19 levels.
Factoring in the significant state-wide variation, there has been a rise in the All-India level of private tuition from 25% in 2018 to 30% in 2022 (ASER, 2022). The graph below is indicative of the stark variation across four Indian states. It can be noted that 70% of children in Bihar and 45% in Jharkhand are taking tuition in 2022. In comparison, only 10% of children in Himachal Pradesh and 15% in Maharashtra are enrolled in tuition.
Further, it can be hypothesised that there may be a possible correlation between the (rise in) government school enrolment and incidences of private tuition. Both Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh have higher private school enrolment ratios in comparison to Bihar and Jharkhand, where a larger proportion of students enrolled in government schools.
This similar trend is visible across all the states with higher percentages of students undertaking private tuition. Reason: Government schools have often been associated with lower standards of education in comparison to the quality of education being imparted in private schools (the bias is evident from a basic correlative understanding of data).
The chart below provides a class-wise representation of the percentage of students attending paid tuition classes across government and private schools alongside displaying an overall percentage of students attending tuition in each grade.
There is a visible fall in the percentage of students attending tuition who enter senior classes in private schools, whereas the opposite phenomenon can be viewed in the case of government schools; more students in the senior classes are attending private tuition.
The previous edition of the ASER report (2021) showed that in rural areas the increase in tuition for children was more if their parents had low educational qualifications (12.6 %) as opposed to children with parents in the high education category (7.2%). In totality, however, there is only a marginal difference in the prevalence of private tuition classes across government and private schools in 2022.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided a boost to the already thriving private tuition economy, in the wake of the closure of schools due to the nationwide lockdowns and the transition to an online schooling curriculum. It can be concluded that enrolment in private tuition has been on the rise for many years, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation at hand.
The next article of this two-part article series will analyse the difference observed in the education landscape in the pre vs. post-pandemic context.
Deepanshu Mohan is a Professor of Economics and the Director of the Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University. Yuvaraj Mandal, Bilquis Calcuttawala, Amisha Singh, Nishit Patil and Vedika Singhvi are research analysts with CNES and members of the CNES-InfoSphere team.