ASER 2017: Here’s Why Some Rural Students In Tamil Nadu Lack Basic Reading, Arithmetic Skills

Government school students in Tamil Nadu. (McKay Savage via Wikimedia Commons)
  • Quality is the aim of Tamil Nadu’s revamped education policy, with the focus shifting towards active learning methodology.

    Experts say the result would be there for all to see over the next couple of years.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2017 study hasn’t witnessed much discussions among educationists and those who are in the field of education. The findings haven’t engaged anyone nationally or regionally. ASER is an annual exercise that has been carried out since 2005 on schooling status and the ability of children to perform basic tasks like reading and mathematics.

The ASER 2017 chose to look at the youth aged between 14 and 18 years in rural areas of the country and came up with some interesting findings:

  • 25 per cent of youth in the age group cannot read fluently in their mother tongues.
  • Over 55 per cent of the youth in the group are unable to do division in mathematics.
  • Nearly 80 per cent of them can explain simple English sentences
  • Overall, a significant section that has studied up to Class VIII lack proper foundation skills in reading and mathematics.

Source: ASER 2017 (all figures in terms of percentage) Source: ASER 2017 (all figures in terms of percentage)

The study was done by picking one district in a particular state and carrying out a household survey. As regards Tamil Nadu, the 14-18 years old youth are better than their counterparts in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka but lag behind those in Kerala. Maybe, it has something to do where the survey was conducted in Kerala - Ernakulam, where as in Tamil Nadu it was carried out in Madurai. In Karnataka, the study was done in Mysuru, in Telangana it was Nizamabad and in Andhra Pradesh, Srikakulam district was chosen.

A common feature of the students in rural areas of the 14-18 age group is that 83.5 per cent of them (among girls it is nearly 90 per cent) perform household work, which experts see as helping their parents in farm work or family business. In Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district, 84.2 per cent of the students helped in household work for less than 15 days a month.

Referring to the ASER 2017 findings, S A Vinoth Kumar, research scholar - education, says it is shocking that more than 50 per cent of the students in the 14-18 age group are not able to perform basic division in mathematics.

S A Vinoth Kumar  S A Vinoth Kumar 

Stating that the Right to Education (RTE) and other steps taken by the governments and NGOs have helped in reducing drop-outs from school, Kumar says one area of concern is that the number of students who are pursuing vocational courses is a paltry five per cent. Lack of skills is due to the students not taking up vocational courses, and they could be made aware of the advantages of enrolling in such courses.

According to the study, only 5 per cent, including those studying in schools, are pursuing vocational courses. Among those who take up these courses, 34 per cent take up ones that are less than three months of duration, 25 per cent have taken up ones that are between four and six months of duration.


“The draft of the new education policy talks about vocational courses for skill development. The final policy could give us some solutions if properly implemented,” says Kumar.

According to P K Ilamaran, president, Tamil Nadu Teachers Association, the case of skills being lower in Tamil Nadu is because of the background of the families from which these students come. “Some of them have no parents, while some are street children. Teachers have a tough task in helping these children,” he says.

P K Illamaran P K Illamaran

Agrees Marudhu Alaguraj, managing editor of Namadhu Amma daily, the official journal of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. “Most of the children attending schools in Madurai district come from a very economically weak background. Their parents wouldn’t even have gone to school and that makes things difficult for these children,” says Alaguraj, who hails from the district.

But Kumar finds other reasons for these findings. A major reason being the state government’s automatic promotion policy making it compulsory to promote students to the next grade, turning many students in the age group of 5-14 educated illiterates, says the teacher-cum-educational thinker.

“We can see the irony of some students passing with flying colours in their Secondary School Leaving Certificate examination without even knowing to read their own language and do basic arithmetic,” laments Kumar, also founder of Bharathi Educational Trust.

“It is a tough task to make street children or students coming from families that struggle to earn their daily bread since they don’t get all the help they need. For them, their family problem dominates their thinking,” says Illamaran, adding that initiatives such as giving free mid-day meals, books and uniforms besides education is helping Tamil Nadu’s cause. (A policy note by the education department said Rs 1967.47 crore will be spent on these initiatives.)

“For families in Madurai, grown up boys and girls are used to helping in household chores or farm work. Girls mandatorily help their families, so that in a way doesn’t allow these children to concentrate fully on school,” says Alaguraj.

Kumar says teachers might be falling short when it comes to application of the skills they have learned. “It could be also a reason why the survey would have come up with such shocking findings,” he says.

Alaguraj says Kerala fares better compared to Tamil Nadu because of Christian missionaries setting up schools there. “Christian missionaries have a role to play for Kerala’s better educational standards. Besides, many of them realise the value of education since most of their families’ heads work abroad in places like th Gulf,” he says.


Alaguraj adds that lack of accountability among government teachers could be one reason for the slack progress of students in Tamil Nadu. “In private schools, each teacher is accountable. Then, parents-teachers meetings are held regularly to ensure proper follow-up,” he says.

Illamaran says that government teachers are striving to do their best and the new system that has been introduced in the state this year will help - an opinion that Alaguraj echoes.

Kumar says that application oriented learning and evaluation should be a part and parcel of the education system. “Even science and maths hands-on activity should be based on daily life experiences and students should be able to relate to their own situations. Otherwise, the results like this are obvious,” he adds.

A curious finding of ASER 2017 was that some couldn’t identify the country on the map, but Kumar attributes it to the students’ belief that they need to look up maps only for exams and not for knowledge. “Students tend to forget the map once the exams are over,” the research scholar says.

Students in the 11-13 age group should be asked to set their own goals based on their skills in life as part of the curriculum.

Focus of education should be learning and not earning, says Kumar. Illamaran and Alaguraj feel that with Tamil Nadu opting to revamp its education system this year, the result could be there for all to see over the next couple of years.

The education department’s policy note almost concurs with their views. “The focus has now shifted to attainment of quality education,” they say. The state government is also shifting towards active learning methodology that stresses on learning, while project based learning will help students solve real life problems at elementary levels.

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