What Does ‘Quality Education Study’ Show?

Posted on:17-05-12

Ambrish Dongre, Accountability Initiative

Recently, I attended the release of an interesting report, ‘Quality Education Study’, put together by Educational Initiatives and Wipro-Applying Thoughts to Schools. The study tries to assess learning levels of students in Standards 4, 6 and 8 by developing specific tests for English, Maths, Science and Social Studies. As mentioned in the report, ‘the questions were not based simply on the ability to recall information or use formulae or procedures…but also attempted to evaluate if the students have understood and internalized the concepts(1).  Some questions were also included to study student attitudes toward gender equality, diversity and sensitivity toward others, civic/ citizenship issues, ecological issues, values and interpersonal skills. 

The study was carried out in 89 ‘top’ English medium schools, out of which 83 schools were included on the basis of a public opinion survey and 6 schools were included, based on expert recommendation for their different learning environments(2). The study could have benefitted from including more of later type of schools, which would have allowed comparison between regular schools and schools with different learning environments. Along with the tests, the study also involved focus group discussions with students and teachers, and principal interviews, in a sub-sample of 16 schools. The objective was to get a sense of classroom climate, teaching practices, role of principal and teachers, their beliefs about teaching etc. 

Interestingly, the study intended to cover 255 schools but only 89 agreed to conduct these tests. It is plausible that such external tests would disturb the school’s routine. Even then, reluctance on the part of so many schools is noteworthy. 
I will concentrate on two findings reported in the study, which, in my opinion, are extremely important.
First- learning levels were found to be significantly lower than what was observed in a 2006 study conducted in the same schools and using some of the same questions(3). Out of 54 common questions, performance was found to be lower on 48 questions. 

This indicates that decline in learning levels may not be restricted to only government schools. It seems that even the ‘top’ schools are experiencing the same problem. It’s just that nobody knew about it till now. Reasons for such a drop are not clear. These schools operate in a fairly competitive ‘education’ market- parents have some ability to take their kids to a different school and new schools are opening all the time. It is not implausible to assume that fees have increased to keep pace with increased costs and schools are not fiscally stretched. Teachers seem to be qualified and classes are fairly homogenous – most of the students belong to fairly affluent and educated families. A drop in learning levels, hence, becomes even more difficult to understand. Some teachers at the launch were of the opinion that this may be due to the new policy of ‘no retention’ and ‘no board exams’. This definitely needs to be probed further. On this note, check out this news item http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/RTE-fallout-After-blind-p...

Second- Students from these schools performed lower than the international average in all 3 subjects tested - English, Maths and Science, at class 4 level, and in all the questions included from the international tests. However, at class 8 level, students performed on par with their average international counterparts. But this was due to better performance on questions which were procedural in nature(4). 

This finding becomes even more critical since these schools are ‘top’ schools and hence their learning levels represent, in some way, an ‘upper bound’ of sorts of learning levels in India. What are the reasons for such a gap in learning levels? Inferior teacher quality? Faulty method of teaching or testing children? Outdated or irrelevant curriculum? This needs a serious investigation.

 According to Prof. Krishna Kumar, former Director of NCERT and a noted educationist, who was also present at the launch, this might be due to the fact that Indian students are not being taught in their mother tongue, and hence they are not able to grasp concepts easily, especially at the lower grades. As they grow, they overcome this barrier to an extent and manage to do well in procedural questions, but can’t match international average on conceptual questions. 
This sounds quite plausible. Unfortunately, nobody in India wants to even talk about the issue of language of instruction. The attitude is as if the issue has already been settled. Everybody has accepted that English medium is the way to go, and that’s a real tragedy.  Unfortunately, the sample did not have ‘top’ schools offering education in a local language, which would have shed at least some light on this issue. The possibility of children of different background attending ‘top’ English medium schools and ‘top’ vernacular schools and other differences would make drawing any conclusions difficult but it’s an area which should be examined with more rigor and open mind. 

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The report gives some background information on schools. It shows that the schools are fairly large with 84% of the schools having more than 1000 kids enrolled. The average class size is between 40-50 students. Only 9% of schools had less than 30 students per class. 56% schools had more than 40 students per class or per teacher. Thus more than half of the schools will have to reduce their class size or recruit more teachers to comply with the RTE requirements. 
Further, a larger class size might have adverse effect on learning levels. It would also be interesting to see if the class size differs at class 4, 6 and 8 and if it has any correlation with learning levels. 
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The report opens up quite a few new research questions and is definitely worth reading.

1. Please see the report for list of specific competencies tested in each paper.

2. Please see the report for details.

3. EI and Wipro had carried out another study in 2006. Some schools and questions are common to that study and the current QES study.

4.  The tests had two types of questions- questions that checked for deeper understanding of concepts, and questions that checked for learning that is ‘text-bookish’ or ‘straightforward’.