Effect of educational surveys on learning outcomes

Improving learning outcomes is a crucial task that stares the Indian education system in its face. Prachi Rege tracks the scope of education surveys that try to spot loopholes in the learning system.

Till the last academic year, Chetan Khedekar was a class VIII student at a local aided school in Mumbai. Today he is a school dropout! He could not cope up with the studies. His mother, a domestic help, has given up on persuading her eldest child to rejoin school. “In class VII we shifted him from a Municipal school to an aided school for quality education. My son however, could not understand what was being taught in class and decided to give up studies,” says a teary-eyed Preeti Khedekar, who, fears a similar fate for her two younger children.

Like Chetan, there are many more students in the country who are school dropouts. The most common reason for this being their lack of understanding of what is taught in the classroom. Under the Right to Education Act (RTE), three cycles of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) have been executed. Almost 95 per cent of children have enrolled into schools under this nationwide scheme. “Thanks to the RTE we have witnessed a considerable amount of improvement in the number of students enrolling into school,” says Farida Lambay, co-founder and Trustee, Pratham, an innovative learning organisation created to improve the quality of education in India.

Despite this however, the dropout rate stands at a whopping 57 per cent and this has been corroborated by a number of different surveys. The findings are similar: while students enrol in schools, the amount of knowledge they take home is quite negligible. As a result, when they move on to higher echelons of education, there is a strong possibility of them being unskilled for the career they choose.

“Improper teaching methodology is one of the major reasons for this phenomenon,” says Lambay, whose organisation has been publishing ASER, an annual status of education report, for the past eight years. The report is prepared following a survey of schools in more than 500 districts. Inadequate number of pre-schools in many parts and also lack of child-oriented focus of families belonging to a particular section of society are other reasons. “Generally the drop out rate is noticed post Class VIII. By then a child is already beyond the scope of RTI, hence most agencies don’t work toward getting them enrolled again,” Lambay says.

Surveys and policies

A survey gives an overall picture of what students in specific classes know and can do. This finding is put to use to identify gaps and diagnose areas that need improvement. This information can then be used to impact policies and interventions for improving children’s learning. It is for this reason that in 2000, the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT), set up the National Achievement survey (NAS) to monitor the learning outcomes of students in class III, V and VIII. “This year, we completed the third cycle of the survey. A new technique called the Item Response Theory (IRT) was used for the same,” informs Santosh Kumar, associate professor, coordinator, NAS.

Kumar further adds that the basic advantage of using IRT in monitoring outcomes is that it measures the true ability of students to respond correctly to different levels of difficulty in tests, allows comparison of scores over time and increases the efficiency, accuracy and usefulness of results. The NAS report gives a national and state-level picture, rather than scores for individual students, schools or districts.

Earlier this year, the Union Government signed a credit agreement of $1.006 billion ($1006.20 million) with the World Bank to monitor and improve learning outcomes of students from class I to class VIII from government and government-aided school. “The purpose of such surveys is to advocate the need for improvement to the State and Central government and not to suggest solutions,” mentions Lambay.

Validity of surveys

Survey reports of the NAS and ASER are translated into local-languages and communicated to the concerned state education authority. However, there is no way to find out whether a school, which has scored low on learning outcome is actually making any amends to improve pedagogy. “Due to the largeness of the survey sample, it is difficult to individually reach out to the schools. Hence, we work as an intervening body. The respective governments may then chalk out a plan to improve learning outcomes,” explains Lambay.

GG Wankhede, professor and dean, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) criticises this practice. “We are good planners of policies and commissions. However, when it comes to execution, we fail miserably,” he says. Wankhede is not questioning the survey authorities. “They sure have the best interest at heart. However, no one really looks at the survey files in government offices.” According to him, NCERT should not only monitor learning outcomes, but should also have autonomy for executing solutions. The job of the survey agencies is to point out loopholes in the system, observes Kumar. “It is upto the educationists to make the most of the results. When it comes to finding solutions to improving learning outcomes, it is a task that rests with the education policy makers,” he says. Sharad Sawant, former director, Maharashtra Institute for Labor Studies, suggests that validity of a survey depends on the scientific sampling done authentically without any preconcieved notions. What is also important is the ideology of the agency which is conducting the survey, as that impact the sampling process, he adds.

Survey—way to go

Experts believe that monitoring reading comprehension and understanding subject material is preferbly done at the school level. Sawant says, "There is no alternative to monitor learning outcomes through surveys. If conducted at the school level, the survey is beneficial qualitatively as compared to when done at the higher level. This is because, at this stage the student's mindset is fully developed."

Experts believe that monitoring learning outcomes and executing improvements creates a good number of skilled workers.

Bijendra Nath Jain, vice chancellor, BITS-Pilani makes some suggestions for improving learning outcome. “I believe that an attitude of ‘learning by doing, experimenting and creating without fear of failure' is the right way to go. We emphasis on learning by rote that is not an ideal way," he asserts.  

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