Most Indian 14-18-Year-Olds in Rural Areas Are Reading at a Class Two Level, Finds Report

The Annual Status of Education Report for 2017 has surveyed how much 14-18 year olds in rural areas are learning in school.

New Delhi: If a person sleeps at 9:30 pm and wakes up at 6:30 am, how many hours did they sleep? If a t-shirt is priced at Rs 300 and the shop is offering a 10% discount, how much money would you need to buy it? If three chlorine tablets are needed to purify 15 litres of water, how many chlorine tablets are needed for 35 litres of water? On a map of India, can you point and show which state you live in?

These are some of the questions which 28,323 youths, aged between 14 and 18, were asked during the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER)-Rural, 2017.

This round of the annual survey has been concerned with children in the age bracket of 14 to 18. Fourteen is the age up to which the government guarantees free and compulsory education, and “just four years later, these young people will become adults”, says the report. So the report has looked at what skills and abilities these children will need to be ready for productive lives as adults.

Arvind Subramanian, chief economic advisor to the government of India, and K.P. Krishnan, secretary in the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, were present at the launch of the report in New Delhi on Tuesday.

“What ASER measures are actually very rudimentary things. This is rock bottom. This really gives a sense of where we are and where we need to go,” said Subramanian on the survey and report.

He is right, because although the survey says that nearly all children are today in school (86%), the study repeatedly notes that the results are not encouraging even among those who have completed eight years of schooling. For example, out of these youth, “a significant proportion still lack foundational skills like reading and arithmetic”.

“More than half struggle with division problems. Only 43% are able to do such problems correctly,” says the report. ASER considers the ability to do division as a proxy for the ability to do basic arithmetic operations.

Students perform best only with grade two level texts

As a testing exercise, the cohort was also checked for their ability to comprehend instructions on a packet of oral rehydration solution and to read a grade two level text. Seventy-five percent of youth could read the basic grade two level text. But only 54% could answer questions about the oral rehydration solution.

To assess comprehension, the young people were asked to read simple sentences in their own languages or in English. “What is the time? This is a large house. I like to read. She has many books,” are some examples of the basic sentences the children were surveyed on.

Fifty-three percent of all 14-year-olds could read these sentences. It rose to 60% in 18-year-olds. Seventy-nine percent could give the meaning of these sentences too.

This improvement with age does not at all show with arithmetic. Here, the percentage of those able to do just division, for example, dropped as children got older (43.5% of 14 year olds were able to perform division while 40.5% 18 year olds were able to).

From the data, the bulk of those in the age band of 14 to 18 can only, at best, read grade two level texts. This does not improve in any meaningful way from age 14 to age 18.

Both play and work

“This research is very important to the work I do at the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship,” said Krishnan at the launch. “It seems that skilling must be done in schools. This is happening, but at a very minimal level. Skilling outside of schools seems to be the absolutely wrong model,” he said.

The study found that 86% of youth in this age bracket are still within the formal education system. Yet, a substantial proportion of them are also working (42%), mostly in agriculture or household chores.

The data also clearly shows that those who are enrolled in school or college were less likely to work in the same time (61.5%), and those who were not enrolled, ended up working instead (60.2%).

The children were tested for the four domains: activity, ability, awareness and exposure, and aspirations. ‘Activity’ looked at whether the youth were currently enrolled in school, college or vocational training, or were preparing for exams. ‘Ability’ looked at their ability to do basic reading and arithmetic. ‘Awareness’ examined their exposure to the media. ‘Aspirations’ explored their educational and career goals.