How covid affects basic reading and math skills

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New Delhi: Prolonged school closures due to the pandemic have reversed years of gradual rise in Indian school students’ learning levels, with a major education report released on Wednesday reporting basic reading and math skills comparable to pre-2012 levels. Nearly 43% of the class V students tested by Pratham Education Foundation, an education non-profit organization, could read a class II level text and 26% could divide numbers. In 2012 this was 47% and 25% respectively. Over the centuries, the gains in reading were more wiped out than in arithmetic. Bihar, Jharkhand and Manipur were among the few outliers that outperformed grade V students’ basic reading ability.

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TBEN

Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), first conducted in 2005, is a large-scale nationwide survey that tracks children’s reading and math skills. It surveyed nearly 700,000 elementary school students across 616 districts by the end of 2022 — the first full, on-field, national survey since 2018, as the 2020 edition was unable to take place.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Despite going to school with the 2020 lockdown, the proportion of Class III pupils who could read text at Class II level (21%) or subtract numbers (26%) was not much affected. The figures were already dismal before the pandemic: 27% and 28% respectively in 2018. Secondly, ASER managed to conduct field trials in 2021 in three states: Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal. Data from these states suggests there was a more worrying decline until 2021 and a recovery has occurred since then, most notably in Chhattisgarh, ASER Center director Wilima Wadhwa told TBEN.

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Towards parity

There were fears that many children would drop out of school during the pandemic. But the overall enrollment rate in the 6-14 age group rose to 98.4% from 97.2% in 2018. The smaller 2020 ASER telephone survey had observed an increase in out-of-school children, but it appears to have been a temporary dip. However, registration does not always translate into attendance. The share of enrolled pupils who actually go to school has been around 72% for years, despite an increase in the number of teachers.

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Girls in the 15-16 age group saw the strongest increase in enrollment rates, reaching close to their male peers. Such girls are most at risk of being pressured by their school because of conservative family norms. But the proportion not attending school was only 7.9%, up from 13.5% in 2018.

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The survey also reported a marked shift from private schools to government schools.

Outside school

In the past, ASER surveys have shown a steady rise in rural students taking private lessons. The trend continued during the pandemic, despite the financial problems experienced by families. Even as schools closed, paid classes scored a big win as students looked for alternatives to cope with the loss of learning.

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TBEN

More than 30% of class I-VIII students surveyed took paid private lessons, up from 26.4% in 2018. The percentage of students taking private lessons was highest among class III, IV and VIII students (nearly 32%). After class V, students from government schools choose tutoring more often than their peers from private schools.

A state-by-state break shows that the trend is more popular in eastern and northeastern states and less so in southern and western states. Bihar, Nagaland, Manipur and Jharkhand saw the highest increase in the proportion of students pursuing tuition fees.

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Infrastructure problems

Several basic facilities such as girls’ toilets, libraries and playgrounds are essential to ensure that students continue to come to school. Progress on this front has continued despite the closure of schools. However, several facilities remain inadequate.

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One in four schools surveyed still did not have a drinking water supply. Two large states – Gujarat and Karnataka – even saw the share fall: from 88% to 71.8% and from 76.8% to 67.8% respectively.

The share of schools with toilets for girls has improved only marginally, from 66.4% in 2018 to 68.4% in 2022. There was also a lack of emphasis on teaching new-age technology to students, as less than a quarter of schools were equipped with computers, in most cases not used by them on the day of the visit. However, libraries were present in 78.3% of schools and surveyors found children reading books in most schools.

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