“574 divided by 10. Ten fives are…ten fives are,” and she pauses. The class IX student seated in the second last row is clearly intimidated by the long division problem. Fiddling with her plaited hair with one hand and desperately trying to count with fingers on the other, she looks flustered.

“You know how to do that, it's simple,” reassures the teacher, but the girl is yet to begin dividing the three digit number. The scene witnessed at a government higher secondary school here recently is not a one-off incident of a high school student struggling to do basic arithmetic. It reflects the School Education Department's prolonged indifference to the worrisome learning levels among a significantly large group of students in the State.

The little girl was part of a bridge course organised by the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan wing. The course seeks to make up for all the learning lost in primary school, just so that students like her can somehow pass in class X. “Many students like her come to class IX without being able to read even a few sentences in Tamil fluently. Imagine our plight,” said one of her teachers. True, teachers don't have it easy, but the troubling question is how can students in class IX not know even the basics?

Some in the teaching fraternity attribute it to Tamil Nadu's “all pass till class VIII” policy that the RTE Act also mandates now, but S.S. Rajagopalan, who has spent several decades teaching and reflecting on classroom practices, shares an important insight. “Teachers have to make sure that a student completing class VIII actually knows what an average class VIII student is expected to know. They cannot merely pass children without ensuring they learn,” he says.

Much of the problem lies in the government's refusal to come out of its comfort zone. It is indifferent not just to alarming findings, but also to observations even remotely critical. “We are fine. We record a steady increase in pass percentage. The number of centums is also increasing, so everything must be right.” - seems to be its position. Not a word from the School Education Department on the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER)-2011 findings that showed that only a little over 40 per cent of the students in a sample size of 26,000 across 29 districts in Tamil Nadu could do a subtraction problem. No response to the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, either.

The PISA study, which looked at performance of 15 year-old school students in select scholastic areas, had Tamil Nadu figuring right at the bottom of the ranking list. The PISA report says only 17 percent of students in the State are estimated to have a proficiency in reading literacy that is at or above the baseline level needed to participate effectively and productively in life. It had some shocking findings on mathematics and science learning as well. This is particularly worrisome for Tamil Nadu, which has a reputation for being quite advanced in school education.

Some argue that statistical assessments of students' abilities may miss out on something vital. Amman Madan, professor of sociology and social anthropology at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, says it is important to examine the process of teaching-learning, as that is where interventions matter. The focus on outcomes runs the risk of ignoring the processes involved. “This is not to reject statistics and surveys, but a more theoretically sophisticated and empirically comprehensive approach is what is desired. This more comprehensive approach to testing is not popular. For administrators and the media, simple numbers and sharp, unidimensional comparisons are attractive. They make good copy and offer strong grounds for action,” he says.

True, numbers may not always reflect the real picture, but in the absence of any other sound indicator of what students learn in school, except class X and XII scores, it is, perhaps, not a bad idea to invest some thought on such studies, which only point to a problem. It is up to the School Education Department to evaluate the extent of the problem and importantly, find solutions.

Meera Srinivasan is the Deputy City Editor of The Hindu. She writes mostly on school education.

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Meera SrinivasanJune 28, 2012