Report confirms fears: COVID took its toll on children’s reading, math skills

Annual Status of Education Report 2022 shows sharp drops in reading and math skills at all levels compared to 2018; however, enrolment rose at all levels despite prolonged school closure

ASER 2022, Covid, schoolchildren
The percentage of Class III students who can read at least at Class II level dropped from 27.3% in 2018 to 20.5% in 2022, while that of Class V students dropped from 50.5% to 42.8% (representative photo)

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022 released by NGO Pratham Foundation has confirmed what many had feared during the peak COVID-19 pandemic years — the basic reading ability of students in the 5–16 age group has dropped sharply.

The drop — recorded among both private and government schools across the country — has been quite sharp since 2018, when the last ASER based on the physical surveys was released. This annual survey is conducted by the education non-profit in the rural areas of India.

ASER 2022, released on Wednesday (January 18), has also revealed that despite the prolonged closure of schools, enrolment has increased at all levels across the country. The number of children in the age group of 6–14 years currently enrolled in schools stands at 98.4%, rising from 97.2% in 2018.

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The percentage of out-of-school girls has decreased across the country, while the number of children enrolled in pre-primary age groups has recorded a sharp increase of 7.1 percentage points in 2022.

Best states had the sharpest drops

The nationwide survey was resumed after four years in 2022, reaching 19,060 villages across 616 districts. As many as 6,99,597 children in the 3–16 age group in 3,74,544 households were surveyed. During the pandemic years, ASER 2021 was conducted based on telephonic surveys. The focus was largely on digital inequality and enrolment levels in schools.

Since the 2018 report was the last one to be based on physical surveys, the current one draws comparison from it. According to the 2022 report, the percentage of Class III students (in both government and private schools), who can read at least at Class II level, dropped from 27.3% in 2018 to 20.5%. This decline was evident in every state.

Incidentally, the states that had recorded higher reading levels in 2018 have registered the sharper drops — of more than 10 percentage points. These states are Kerala (52.1% in 2018 to 38.7% in 2022), Himachal Pradesh (47.7% to 28.4%), and Haryana (46.4% to 31.5%). Andhra Pradesh (22.6% to 10.3%) and Telangana (from 18.1% to 5.2%) also recorded steep drops.

Bleak figures at Class V level too

The ASER reading test judges whether a child can read letters, words, and a simple paragraph of Class I difficulty level, or a “story” at Class II difficulty level.

Among Class V students, the percentage of children who could read at least Class II text dropped from 50.5% in 2018 to 42.8% in 2022, the ASER stated.

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In Bihar, Odisha, Manipur, and Jharkhand, this indicator held steady or even improved marginally. However, Andhra Pradesh (59.7% in 2018 to 36.3% in 2022), Gujarat (53.8% to 34.2%), and Himachal Pradesh (76.9% to 61.3%) showed a fall of 15 percentage points or more. Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Haryana, Karnataka, and Maharashtra recorded a decline of more than 10 percentage points.

Higher the class, less sharp the fall

For Class VIII students, the drop in basic reading ability was not as sharp as that in classes III and V. Across the country, 69.6% of children enrolled in Class VIII in government or private schools “can read at least basic text” in 2022, falling from 73% in 2018, the report stated.

The drop is evident from a comparative analysis with previous years. Even in 2012, 21.4% of Class III students could read Class II textbooks. Between 2014 and 2018, learning levels rose gradually, with the proportion of Class III children who could read a Class II text increasing from 23.6% to 27.2%. Likewise, the share of Class V students who could read Class II text increased from 48% in 2014 to 50.4% in 2018, but fell to 42.8% in 2022.

Children’s basic arithmetic levels dropped for most grades nationwide as well, though not as steeply as in the case of basic reading. For instance, children in Class III who can manage subtraction dropped from 28.2% in 2018 to 25.9% in 2022. Similarly, the number of children in Class V who can do division has fallen from 27.9% in 2018 to 25.6% in 2022.

A ray of light

However bleak the figures may look, signs of recovery from the pandemic are also evident. In Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, and West Bengal, Pratham undertook the physical learning outcome surveys even in 2021.

In Chhattisgarh, the proportion of Class III children who could read Class II text had dropped to an alarming 12.3% in 2021. The state has bounced back to 24.2% in 2022. In West Bengal, the figure rose from 29.5% in 2021 to 33% in 2022.

Also read: COVID impact: Private schools lost a quarter of students to govt institutions

In the case of arithmetic, Class III children able to solve basic problems rose from 9% in 2021 to 19.6% in 2022. The figures in Karnataka and West Bengal rose from 17.3% to 22.2% and 29.4% to 34.2% respectively.

Improvement in enrolment

Also, more kids enrolled into government schools amid the Covid-19 pandemic, shows ASER 2022. “The proportion of children (age 6 to 14) enrolled in government schools increased sharply from 65.6% in 2018 to 72.9% in 2022,” the report stated, and that happened in almost every state.

The percentage of out-of-school girls aged 11–14 years stood at 2% in 2022, a significant improvement from 4.1% in 2018. “This figure is around 4% only in Uttar Pradesh and is lower in all other states,” the report started.

The decrease in the proportion of girls not enrolled in school is sharper among older girls aged 15–16. “In 2008, nationally, more than 20% of girls in the 15–16-year age group were not enrolled in school. Ten years later, in 2018, this figure had decreased to 13.5%. The proportion of 15-16-year-old girls not enrolled has continued to drop, standing at 7.9% in 2022,” the report stated.

Only three states have more than 10% of girls in this age group out of school. These include Madhya Pradesh (17%), Uttar Pradesh (15%), and Chhattisgarh (11.2%).

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The proportion of government schools with fewer than 60 students has also increased every year over the past decade. In 2022, 29.9% of schools in rural areas had fewer than 60 students as compared to only 17.3% of schools in 2010.

The proportion of children in classes I–V taking paid private coaching rose from 26.4% in 2018 to 30.5% in 2022. “In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand, the proportion of children taking paid private tuition increased by 8 percentage points or more over 2018 levels,” it said.

(With agency inputs)

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