India’s education boards manipulate success rate data

India has a big education problem our kids are not learning enough
Voices Education Friday, April 15, 2016 - 15:47

By Prashant Bhattacharji

As a data engineer with a keen interest in education,  I have been aggregating academic records of Class 12 students - 13 million students at last count - as deeper parts of the web aren’t really public via a general purpose search engine. Here is what I found and most likely this will not be made public anytime soon.

Data speaks. What I found howls. It shows a blatant manipulation and inflation of scores by the country's premier school-leaving boards, the CBSE and the ICSE. Translated this means people pass and exit the school system without basic reading and writing skills. Some 96% of test-takers passed the ISC Class 12 examinations in 2015 and 98% cleared the ICSE Class 10 exam. How is this possible ?

My insights are from conclusive academic rankings of schools, based on their board examination performance in CBSE, ICSE-ISC and even certain state boards such as those of Rajasthan (RBSE) and Punjab (PSEB). The benefits of this kind of analysis cannot be overstated. Fee paying parents get factual information to make informed choices. It also makes schools more accountable and transparent. In many developed countries, the governments publish this information.

Between 2005 and 2015 the total amount spent on salaries of government schools was ~94 billion dollars - and the majore part was spent on salaries of ineffective and incompetent teachers. This is one of the largest cohorts of unionized government employees with way more political clout than they deserve to have. The 7th pay commission will only increase this un-monitored amount. This is bad news for education in addition to wasteful expendtiure, much more than  NPA losses being discussed. Spending on education is critical, but ensuring quality is even more so.

Government schools are not loss-making PSUs – their damage is far worse than just what can be written off financially. They must play an important role in India’s education process and teachers must be well paid and acccountable. A detailed statistical analysis is required and basic barometres must be set.

The data reveals other anomalies. If you want a glaring example of how the Indian government spends money very inefficiently compared to the private sector, here is one approach - by trying to estimate the employability of those graduating from government schools versus private ones. Ideally one should factor in income groups, but for now that data isn't available. RTIs have shown that the actual cost (to exchequer) of educating a child in a government school are often greater than, or equal to the fee in reasonably good private schools.

For example in Uttar Pradesh the average per-pupil annual cost is Rs. 24000. Many respectable private CBSE schools in the state also charge that amount as  annual fee. In fact, the best ones only charge about twice that amount. And they all deliver superior results without pressure on tax payers. Sure, there are additional costs for educating a first generation learner like even making sure they come to school. But how much of this money is really being spent the way it should be ?

Another example is this.  A basic query on a class 12 database shows  that less than 10% of state board students in states like Rajasthan and Punjab (total of 1.4 million students) opt for Mathematics as a subject at the Class 12 level.

This is because it is  ‘easy’ to get a class 12 certificate with a subject combination English, Hindi, History, Geography, Political Science/Physical Education. Such subject combinations account for over 70% of the students. Given that the standard of English in these boards is dismal it makes most of their candidates ineligible even for call center and clerical level work in most places. So a major part of this $94 billion is probably getting spent on salaries of those teaching Geography, History, Physical Education which doesn’t directly translate into skills required for a job.

Only three thousand  schools in Rajasthan offer Math/Science courses versus 11 thousand which offer Humanities/Arts courses presimably because they can’t arrange the infrastructure or teaching required for Math or Science. These should not be confused with elite schools like DPS where students opt for the Humanities as a conscious career choice and go on to have successful careers in the media, writing and elsewhere.

While these numbers go competely unnoticed we have yet another event management tax-and-spend scheme “Skill India” rolling out pretending to address these issues well before a teenager enters class 12. Who will employ these students ?

Less than 30% of students in Rajasthan had one or more of the following application-oriented subjects: Maths, Biology, Economics, Accounts, Computers. On an average, I’d hazard a guess that they might even have been better off with some vocational instruction in carpentry, welding, library/book keeping, hotel management or network administration. These are first generation learners and vocational training may be far more relevant to them than usual academics.

Similar trends are found in CBSE’s database when one starts to look at gibvernment –run schools. The majority do not offer science and mathematics including in cities like Delhi. Almost all their private schools do and the same is the story with most other state boards.

If  you compare these numbers with that of a privately run board with only private schools affiliated to it (CISCE) the difference is striking. Almost 70% of their students opt for Math, a quarter study programming (at the Class 10 level this number is over 60%). In fact, no more than 7-8% of their students study subjects like History and Geography. Less than 10% study exclusively Humanities and 52% studied Physics and Chemistry.

The reason for this difference in offerings is fairly obvious – private schools cannot flourish if they don’t perform. This means offering subjects which are in line with the future job market of the students they admit. Many have closed down Humanities.  It is obvious why we see a major difference in the subjects opted for the students of a private board versus one which has a very large number of government schools.

Regardless of the stream candidates choose, the learning outcomes in India are simply terrible. In 2012 when India appeared for the Programme for International Student Assesement (PISA) it ranked 70 out of 71 countries, beating only Kyrgyztan. This national humiliation was resolved in the uniquely Indian way of not participating in the competition.

I know it is not fair to compare a first generation learner in a government school with a middle class kid attending a DPS, but the above numbers just reflect how the employment and income divide between them is only going to increase with time. Here’s a snapshot of comparative scores of students across boards.

How does one solve this problem? I’m not an education economist so I don’t know. The United Kindgom (UK) has a model. They cut funding to government schools when their enrollment drops. Enrollment generally drops for those schools which get a bad name because of declining academic standards. Those schools are then forced to prune our under-performing teachers as money for salaries shrinks. Schools which perform well and see their enrollment surge also have their budget increased. So schools and teachers are compelled to maintain standards via a carrot-and-stick approach of funding increases and cuts. This way, one doesn’t end up with blanket privatization (unwanted in a sector like education) but accountability becomes a responsibility for all.

There is no one shoe fits all. India can learn from reasonably successful models from other countries. Otherwise, programs like Make in India and Digital India, will never really flourish in an India without basic education

A lot of my data analysis is published on my personal website

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