The National Achievement Survey (NAS) 2021 findings show how serious the learning loss from Covid-19-induced school closures has been. Performance of students of class 3, 5, 8, and 10 (part of the survey sample) saw a sharp dip, with average mathematics scores for class 3 students falling by 15 points from the 2017 showing; for class 5 students, these fell by 26 points. While the younger learners still have the time to bridge learning gaps, the problem is acute for those in the higher grades — mathematics scores fell by 14 points for class 8 and an alarming 34 points for those in class 10. The NAS survey covered close to 3.4 million students in over 100,000 schools across 720 districts, and therefore allows governments to fully grasp the scope of action needed. The Survey findings show why the country must brace for an increase in socio-economic inequities with students in urban areas, specially the older ones, outperforming their peers in rural India in quite a few subjects. For example, science scores were significantly higher for urban students in both classes 8 and 10. Curiously, the average scores of these segments didn’t vary too significantly in 2017; indeed, rural students had outperformed urban peers in science in most states then.
Learning loss in the later years of school could mean a higher dropout rate given the trade-off between pursuing education and pursuing livelihood. This could translate into a failure to realise the National Education Policy’s (NEP’s) goal on raising the gross enrolment ratio at the tertiary level. The focus, thus, has to be on delivering optimised solutions to cater to ‘teaching at the learning level’ in classrooms—where the learning level of each student is mapped and customised solutions are developed for groups within the class that are roughly at a similar level of learning. This calls for going beyond bridge courses that the Centre believes can address pandemic-wrought learning losses.
Even with this limited approach, only a few states have moved on the Union education ministry’s February 2022 guideline that students should be taught new material only after the completion of bridge courses. A 2021 report from the Azim Premji University had called for stakeholders in education delivery to build understanding, for instance, on “why the loss in some specific abilities is higher than in others” and tailor “effective school-level strategies” based on such research. It also called for community-based engagements to overcome learning losses. Others have called for deploying technology that aids schools in accurately identifying areas where students need assistance—Mindspark, a technology used by US- and Sweden-based researchers a few years ago to assess learning levels in government-funded schools in Delhi, and other such tools perhaps need quick adoption by the states. Some of the success stories of a few states also need to be analysed—for example, students in Punjab are ahead of the national average in every class and subject.
All of this, of course, will need building teacher-capacity. This is where the states need to step up their game—with the Centre pitching in as well. It is sad that 48% of the teachers surveyed in NAS 2021 had ‘not participated’ in any professional development programme conducted by the District Institutes of Education and Training, the National Council of Education Research and Training and the Central Board of Secondary Education. As much as 42% had not participated in any discussion on the NEP, while 44% didn’t have adequate work space. This will need remedying along with efforts on reducing the learning loss for students.