After a prolonged struggle with low enrolment rates for children in the school-going age, India now has to come to grips with another crucial issue: poor learning outcomes for students in the six to 14 age group. National data on this is not comprehensive, but available empirical evidence points to weak achievements for a significant percentage of students. In rural India, which is more disadvantaged, the highest level of reading that the largest segment of students in Class Eight were capable of was a Class Two text, according to the Annual Status of Education Report, 2011. In the same student sample, only 56.8 per cent were able to do a simple arithmetic division in Class Eight; others performed badly. Viewed against the backdrop of such low academic attainments, it is understandable that Education Ministers of some States expressed their apprehension at the 59th meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) that the “no detention” feature of the Right to Education Act could pave the way for a further fall in standards. The solution, however, cannot lie in a system that merely seeks to punish students who could not do better due to intrinsic factors — including bad teachers and lack of infrastructure — by insisting that they repeat a grade. The RTE Act is, in fact, consistent with the National Policy on Education, 1986, which states clearly that “the policy of non-detention in the primary stage will be retained, making evaluation as disaggregated as feasible.” The answer, then, lies not in detention, but in upgrading the system for all.
If students are to do better at school, they must overcome the extreme fear caused by examinations. There is some evidence to show that being labelled a “failure” at school reduces the child's self-esteem and contributes to higher drop-out rates. The RTE Act attempts to ameliorate this by providing for comprehensive and continuous evaluation. It is welcome, therefore, that the CABE has decided to explore the better options and formed a committee chaired by the Haryana Education Minister, Geeta Bhukkal, to come up with an evaluation framework in three months. While that task is pursued, it is incumbent on the Centre and the State governments to get serious about the fundamental goals of the RTE Act. These include provision of all-weather classrooms and sufficient teachers to match the prescribed pupil-teacher ratio by 2013 and training of untrained teachers by 2015. These actions will potentially raise student achievements. Moreover, the objective of education is to produce all-round development of children, besides equipping them with life skills. It would be folly to reduce the process to mere clearing of annual examinations.