Concerns over reading and math abilities of India’s school students: ASER 2023

The ASER 2023 “Beyond Basics” survey was conducted in 28 districts across 26 States, reaching a total of 34,745 youth in the age group of 14-18 years.

Published : Jan 30, 2024 12:23 IST - 9 MINS READ

A group of small Indian children in a rural school classroom, performing dance and poetry. The school is located in a village called Peve Khare Kound in Ratnagiri District of Maharashtra State.

A group of small Indian children in a rural school classroom, performing dance and poetry. The school is located in a village called Peve Khare Kound in Ratnagiri District of Maharashtra State. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

More than 86.8 per cent of youngsters in the age group of 14-18 years are enrolled in educational institutions but one-fourth of them cannot read a Class II level text fluently in their regional languages, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) released on January 17. The ASER 2023 “Beyond Basics” report puts the spotlight on youths aged 14 to 18 years in rural India, an age group that was also the focus of ASER 2017. ASER is a nationwide citizen-led household survey that provides a snapshot of the status of children’s schooling and learning in rural India.

First implemented in 2005, the “basic” ASER survey was conducted annually until 2014 and switched to an alternate-year cycle in 2016. The basic ASER collects information about enrollment in pre-school and school for children in the age group of 3 to 16 and assesses children aged 5 to 16 one-on-one to understand their foundational reading and arithmetic abilities. In the intervening years, ASER dives deeper into different aspects of children’s schooling and learning in rural India. The ASER 2023 “Beyond Basics” survey was conducted in 28 districts across 26 states, reaching a total of 34,745 youth in the age group 14-18 years. One rural district was surveyed in each major state, with the exception of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, where two rural districts were surveyed.

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ASER reports are also used by the government while formulating policies. “NEP (National Education Policy) 2020 recognises the need for ‘catch up’ in the case of those who have fallen behind. Thus, programs could be put in place, if they do not already exist, to help students from Std VIII and higher grades who are lagging behind academically,” it added. “NEP 2020 also clearly states the urgent need for ensuring that by Std III, children have acquired basic reading and arithmetic skills,” the report said.

Focus of 2023 report

The 2023 survey explored the following domains—What activities are India’s youth currently engaged in? Do they have basic and applied reading and math abilities, digital awareness, and skills? Do they have access to smartphones, what do they use smartphones for, and can they do simple tasks on their smartphones? “Surveyed youth were given five types of tasks—basic reading, math, and English abilities; application of basic skills to everyday calculations; reading and understanding written instructions; financial calculations that need to be done in real life, and digital tasks. Youths’ performance on digital tasks was summarised taking into account digital awareness and aptitude,” it said.

The report also asserted that the fear that several older students dropped out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a loss of livelihood was unfounded. While the report noted small gender gaps in enrolment, it flagged notable differences between age groups. “There are small gender gaps in enrolment, but notable differences are visible by age. Older youth are more likely to be not enrolled. The percentage of youth not enrolled is 3.9 per cent for 14-year-old youth and is 32.6 per cent for 18-year-olds,” the report said. The 2022 report showed that the enrolment levels of children in the age bracket of 6 to 14 years had gone up marginally from 96.6 per cent in 2010 to 96.7 per cent in 2014 and from 97.2 per cent in 2018 to 98.4 per cent in 2022.

Streams and vocational training

The report said more than 55 per cent students of in classes XI-XII opt for humanities, followed by science and commerce. It also pointed out that females are less likely to be enrolled in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) streams than males. According to it, only 5.6 per cent of youngsters in the country are currently undergoing vocational training or have been enrolled in other related courses. Additionally, only 16.2 per cent of youth at the college level are most likely to be taking vocational training.

“Most youths are taking short duration courses (of six months or less). A higher percentage of males (40.3 per cent) than females (28 per cent) report doing work other than household work for at least 15 days during the preceding month,” it added. The report pointed out that among both males and females, most youths who are working in activities other than household work tend to be working on family farms.

Test of basic reading, math, and performing everyday calculations

Forty-two per cent of children in the age group of 14 to 18 years in rural India cannot read easy sentences in English, while more than half of them struggle with simple division problems, according to ASER. “Only 43.3 per cent of 14-18-year olds are able to do such problems correctly. This skill is usually expected in class 3 and 4,” the report said. It also added: “A little over half can read sentences in English (57.3 per cent). Of those who can read sentences in English, almost three quarters can tell their meanings (73.5 per cent).”

Across enrolment categories, females (76 per cent) do better than males (70.9 per cent) in reading a Class II level text in their regional language. In contrast, males do better than their female counterparts in arithmetic and English reading. The report says that around 45 per cent of the students surveyed could calculate the number of hours a child had slept based on the time she went to bed at night and woke up in the morning.

Financial calculations and understanding instructions

In an everyday task of measuring an object with a scale, 85 per cent of those surveyed could calculate the length of an object correctly if it was placed at the “0” mark on the ruler. But when the object was moved and placed elsewhere on the ruler, less than 40 per cent could give the right answer. Two-thirds of the surveyed youths (65.1 per cent) were able to read functional instructions on a packet of ORS solution, the report said.

According to the report, low levels of foundational numeracy affect the ability of youth to tackle everyday calculations where they need to apply measurement or use the unitary method in practical situations, or even do simple financial computations (managing a budget, applying a discount, or calculating interest rates or repayment of a loan). “Catch-up efforts for foundational literacy and numeracy are needed for a significant portion of the 14-18 population, not only for doing better in school but also for everyday needs. Data from ASER 2023 indicates that building foundational literacy and numeracy may be needed for about a fourth of youth in the 14-18 age group.”

Digital access

Boys in the age group of 14-18 years are more than twice as likely to own smartphones compared to girls who are also less likely to know how to use these devices, according to the report. The percentage of females who can use smartphones was 89.8 against 94.7 for males, according to the survey report. The report published by the Pratham Foundation highlights that 89 per cent of the youths in that age group have smartphones at home and 92 per cent of them know how to use them. Among those who can use a smartphone, 31 per cent have their own devices.

“Availability of a computer/laptop in the households is much lower, with only 9 per cent having one at home. Youth who have a computer/laptop at home are much more likely to know how to use it (85 per cent) than those who do not (33.9 per cent),” it said.

Smartphone usage and digital safety

The survey explored two components—a self-reported questionnaire capturing youths’ access to digital devices and their online habits and an assessment of their digital skills—performing a set of tasks in front of the survey team using an available smartphone. On communication and online safety, the survey found that 50 per cent of all surveyed males have an email ID, compared to slightly under 30 per cent of females. “However, of all youth who used social media, only about half are familiar with the online safety settings that were included in the survey. Males are more likely to know about these settings than females,” the report observed.

Nearly two-thirds of the youth who can use a smartphone said they have used it for some education-related activity, such as watching online videos related to studies, solving doubts, or exchanging notes. Nearly 25 per cent who are not currently enrolled also report doing education-related activities on their smartphone. “Among enrolled youth, the likelihood of having an email ID and having sent an email increases as the level of education goes up.”

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Also 25 per cent of the youths are also using smartphones to access online services such as “making online payments, filling a form, paying a bill or booking a ticket.” “Males are more likely to have accessed at least one of these services (37.6 per cent) than females (19 per cent). Close to 80 per cent of the youth report having used their smartphone to do an entertainment-related activity, such as watching a movie or listening to music, as well,” the survey found.

According to the report findings, 80 per cent of the surveyed teens were able to find a specific video on YouTube, and among these, nearly 90 per cent can share it with a friend. At least 70 per cent of youths can browse the internet to find the answer to a question and about two-thirds can set an alarm for a specific time. A little over a third can use Google Maps to find the time taken to travel between two points, the report stated. However, it highlights that females lag behind in using smartphones and computers than their male counterparts. For instance, while half of all surveyed males have an email ID, only 30 per cent of females had their email IDs. Similarly, only 25.3 per cent females can use Google maps against 48.9 per cent males.

(with inputs from PTI)

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