Tamil Nadu is in a unique position. It boasts of some of the best investments—qualitative and quantitative in social sectors, including education—and the largest number of SMEs registered, helping it achieve high development. Yet the current events in the state and reports on education outcomes over the last few years are worrying. The question is, is the state living off past laurels in education outcome? Today, the entire state in a rage after the unfortunate death of a girl who, after scoring high in state board exams, fought against the implementation of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET). Behind the rage on both sides of the NEET argument is a worrying trend.
The state’s education system is in a clear disarray. Reports have shown the falling quality of education—from school to higher to professional courses. In school education, years of study by the NGO Pratham, which brings out its Annual Status of Education Report (ASER-Rural), Tamil Nadu has been consistently at the bottom. ASER measures simple education outcomes and I have had the opportunity on two occasions to witness the survey among rural children to verify its authenticity. The surveys are conducted at the homes of children in a relaxed way. Sufficient time is given to the children and parents are informed. I was aghast to see children of 8th standard could not do basic division (see table for Tamil Nadu results for 2016).
Just 44% students in rural Tamil Nadu in standards 3 to 5 were able to do subtraction. The performance fares poorer as the class goes up—just 40% students in standards 6 to 8 are able to do division. In the survey, I had participated in rural Coimbatore district, and the parents themselves were shocked. In one family, the father broke down as he muttered, “Even I could have taught my child better. We relied on the school.” We have to refrain from the private versus government school debate; we are talking of a survey that revealed the general standard. The analysis included students of both private and government schools. The sampling is so robust that all sections of a village are covered—dalit colonies if any, poor households, affluent sections, etc. The figures for Dindigul, Theni, Nagapattinam and Ariyalur are worse.
Next comes 10th and 12th. After the implementation of ‘Samacheer Kalvi’, a laudable method of activity-based learning, school passout rates increased stupendously. Between 2010 and 2016, the percentage of students passing the state’s 10th and 12th standard board exams rose from mid-80s to mid-90s. So did the scores and the tally of students getting a perfect 100.
But according to a Scroll report by M Rajshekhar, the numbers clash with findings from National Achievement Surveys conducted by NCERT. Its assessment of 10th standard students in 2015 placed Tamil Nadu close to the bottom—the state ranked 25th in Maths, 21st in Science and 28th in Social Science. The Scroll report showed there is a spike in the passmark level and the majority is between 35-75 marks. In Science, the jump is seen at 45, falling till 49, and then a gradual rise to 100. It reported similar trends in 12th for all subjects.
Coming to professional education, questions have been raised about the employability of engineers from Tamil Nadu. Aspiring Minds, an employment solutions firm, in a 2016 study rated Tamil Nadu in the bottom 25 percentile, despite having the highest number of engineering students coming out each year. This is not a unique report. There have been reports of nearly 50% students, who had topped 12th board exams in the state, having failed in the first semester in Anna University—reported by an RTI query by educationist JP Gandhi.
There is a visible quality downgrade in basic, high school and professional education. But how and where did this begin? The answer could be the burgeoning private schools. With no entrance exams any more, the standard is 12th marks in board exams, and there is a craze to achieve highest marks, as successive school enrolment in these schools depend on marks by current batches. Next in line is private colleges and universities. Having scored sky high, the aspiration of a family is to send the child to a professional course institute. This is ‘capitalised’ by capitalists in private colleges. Medical seats in Tamil Nadu are talked of in terms of crores of rupees, while engineering seats are in tens of lakhs. This is a vicious chain.
So, what can be done? If NEET is a standard, so be it. This situation could emerge in other states too. We can think of a two-part solution.
w Bifurcate the syllabus into two—pure science and maths as one stream, and history, language and arts as another. Let state governments decide the curriculum on history, arts and languages. Let one body with all states participating determine the syllabus under science and maths. States then can focus on their respective languages and strengthen the medium of teaching science in local languages. Already, NITI Aayog is functioning in this mode for many aspects, including GST.
w Let there be a science aptitude test in 11th standard by CBSE that will be a precursor to NEET and CET. Students will know where they stand. The results need not be published, and can be shared only with the respective student and the school. Teachers and parents have one year to understand a child’s aptitude and area of interest, and the school itself to see the level of their coaching and take corrective measures.