School closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to complete disconnect from education for the vast majority of children or inadequate alternatives like community based classes or poor alternatives in the form of online education, including mobile phone-based learning.
One complete academic year has elapsed in this manner, with almost no or little curricular learning in the current class. But this is only one kind of loss of learning. Equally alarming is the widespread phenomenon of ‘forgetting’ by students of learning from the previous class – this is regression in their curricular learning. This includes losing foundational abilities such as reading with understanding and performing addition and multiplication, which they had learnt earlier and become proficient in, and which are the basis of further learning. These foundational abilities are such that their absence will impact not only learning of more complex abilities but also conceptual understanding across subjects.
Thus, this overall loss of learning – loss (regression or forgetting) of what children had learnt in the previous class as well as what they did not get an opportunity to learn in the present class – is going to lead to a cumulative loss over the years, impacting not only the academic performance of children in their school years but also their adult lives. To ensure that this does not happen, multiple strategies must be adopted with rigorous implementation to compensate for this overall loss of learning when schools reopen.
This study, undertaken in January 2021, reveals the extent and nature of the ‘forgetting/regression’ kind of learning loss (i.e. what was learnt earlier but has now been lost) among children in public schools across primary classes because of school closure during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study covered 16067 children in 1137 public schools in 44 districts across 5 states. It focused on the assessment of four specific abilities each in language and mathematics, across classes 2 – 6. These four specific abilities for each grade were chosen because these are among the abilities for all subsequent learning – across subjects – and so the loss of any one of these would have very serious consequences on all further learning.
For understanding any regression, an assessment of the learning levels of children when schools closed as well of their current status was necessary. This was done in collaboration with teachers who had been deeply engaged with their learners, and who had a reliable assessment of children’s abilities when schools closed in March 2020. This baseline assessment of children’s learning levels — or where they were assessed on specific abilities in language and mathematics when schools closed — was done based on a comprehensive analysis by the relevant teachers, aided by appropriate assessment tools.
All abilities associated with the previous class were not assessed and only a few abilities critical for further learning were carefully identified and assessed. These are referred to as specific abilities in the document. ‘End-line’ was the assessment of the same children’s proficiency on these very same abilities in January 2021, which was done by administering oral and written tests.
Learning loss in language
On average, 92% of children have lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year across all classes. These abilities include describing a picture or their experiences orally, reading familiar words, reading with comprehension and writing simple sentences based on a picture.
Learning loss in mathematics
On average, 82% of children on an average have lost at least one specific mathematical ability from the previous year across all classes. These specific abilities include identifying single and two digit numbers, performing arithmetic operations, using basic arithmetic operations for solving problems and describing 2D/3D shapes as well as reading and drawing inferences from data.
The extent and nature of learning loss is serious enough to warrant action at all levels. Policy and processes to identify and address this loss are necessary as children return to schools. Supplemental support, whether in the form of bridge courses, extended hours, community-based engagements and appropriate curricular materials, will be needed to help children gain the foundational abilities when they return to school. It follows that teacher capacity to ensure student learning in these unusual circumstances must be in focus, particularly with respect to pedagogy and assessment needed to deal with students at diverse learning levels. And most importantly the teachers must be given enough time to compensate for both kinds of learning loss – and we must not rush into promoting children to the next class.