Students in Mumbai and Bangalore – two of India’s wealthiest cities with a combined GDP of $410 billion, larger than that of Norway -- are falling behind in the core areas of maths and language, scoring notably worse than their counterparts in rural areas, according to a new nationwide test.

Despite being amongst India’s three richest states, Maharashtra and Karnataka (first and third, respectively, with Delhi second) are failing to equip students with more than basic literacy. Our analysis of the new data also shows that the Centre continues to underfund a key elementary education programme.

These findings are in line with other data that point to plunging education outcomes because of funding cuts, a learning crisis, poor assessment practices and a shortage of teachers. All of which weaken India’s demographic dividend, the growth potential a country enjoys when its population has a high share of those in the working age (15 to 64 years), IndiaSpend reported on January 30, 2018.

With a median age of 27.9 years, India has one of the world’s youngest populations, with 66% of its 1.3 billion people in the working age bracket of 15 to 64 years. About 12-15 million of them will join the workforce every year in the next five years, according to a March 2017 study by global consultancy Boston Consulting Group and industry body Confederation of Indian Industry.

At current levels India will only achieve universal primary education by 2050, universal lower secondary education in 2060 and universal upper secondary education in 2085, beyond the 2030 goal set out by the global community (here and here)

The National Achievements Survey (NAS), carried out in November 2017 by the National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT), tested students from classes three, five and eight in maths and language, as a measure of learning outcomes and education standards nationwide.

Students from urban areas in each state significantly underperform compared to pupils in more rural and poorer areas, we found in an analysis of test scores across the 36 districts in Maharashtra and 34 districts in Bangalore.

In both states the highest average scores across each class and subject were found in majority rural centres, such as Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg in Maharashtra, and Bagalkot, Belagavi and Chikkodi in Karnataka. For example, while the average score for Maths in class eight in Bangalore North was 35%, students in Belagavi Chikkodi scored 67%.

Source: National Achievement Survey 2017, NCERT

Whether the students tested by NCERT were educated in government or government-aided schools did not affect the average scores across both states. The average scores remained largely similar in each subject for government and government-aided schools and never had a gap of more than five percentage points.

Staying in cities isn’t helping urban students

It appears various factors, such as economic development and easier access to education centres, have not proved advantageous for urban students.

The pupil-teacher ratio (PTR), set at 30:1 at the Primary level and 35:1 at the Upper Primary level under the Right to Education Act (RTE) is often surpassed in urban centres and may be a reason for the poor attainment of urban students.

Overcrowding in classrooms means less attention can be paid to the specific needs of each child, disruption increases and social dynamics are affected when the number of pupils grows. In a 2006 study by the Premji Foundation, which sought to establish a link between PTRs and learning outcomes, a survey of primary schools in Karnataka found that the optimal PTR was between 10:1 and 20:1. The PTR in suburban Mumbai however is 36:1, the Times of India reported in October 2016, quoting data from the District Information System for Education (DISE) 2015-16; 18 schools in Mumbai’s suburbs were even found to have a PTR of 100:1.

India has enrolled more children than ever before in secondary schools, but it is failing to teach them what they should be learning, according to an ongoing international study, funded by the University of Oxford, UK, IndiaSpend reported on September 20, 1017. Fundings cuts aren’t helping

As elementary education faces more cuts, test scores decline

In an era when elementary education faces funding cuts, test scores decline as students progress from primary and upper primary (class three and five) to elementary education (class eight), our analysis showed.

In Maharashtra the average maths and language scores for class three fell from 65% and 71% respectively, to 40% and 62% in class eight. It’s a similar picture in Karnataka where the transition from primary to elementary education produces a drop in attainment, with scores falling from an average of 74% and 76% in maths and language in class three, to an average of 50% and 62% in class eight.

The Indian government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyān (SSA) or Education for All Movement programme, was designated as the main vehicle for the universalisation of elementary education, as set out in the RTE. Yet, this programme was allocated Rs 23,500 crore in the 2017-18 Union Budget, an increase of Rs 1,000 crore from the previous year.

With the SSA programme slated to end in 2020, the situation is set to worsen. There is a growing assumption that states will bridge the approaching funding gap as the centre reduces allocation to the SSA programme, Krishna Kumar, former Director of the NCERT said in an interview to News18 in earlier this year.

Maharashtra and Karnataka are currently spending only 79% and 68%, respectively, of what they should be on elementary education. If the Centre shifts attention away from SSA, it is hard to see how state governments can fill funding holes left by the Centre, when they already fall short of requirements.

Karnataka vs Maharashtra: Why is Karnataka doing better?

Across each class, students in Karnataka achieved higher average scores in maths and language than those in Maharashtra, the new data show. The class eight state average for maths in Karnataka was 50% compared to 40% across the border in Maharashtra.

What factors are leading to Karnataka’s students scoring higher?

If we took sector expenditure on education to be representative of a state government’s commitment to improving education standards and success in implementation, we would expect the education share of the Maharashtra state budget to be less than that of Karnataka’s.

However, when looking at the previous five years, the Maharashtra government has been spending between 17-19% of the state budget on education, whereas Karnataka’s allocations have dropped from highs of 15% in 2013-14 and 2014-15 to 11% in the 2017-18 budget. This implies that a higher proportion of education spending in a budget does not necessarily translate into improved outcomes.

Sources: Detailed Demand for Grants, Maharashtra State Budgets 2012-2018 and Karnataka State Budgets 2012-18

When comparing the states against key education infrastructure markers and resource gaps, there is no clear reason why Maharashtra performs significantly worse than Karnataka.

Both states have a comparable shortage of teachers, with Karnataka having 70% of the teachers it needs and Maharashtra 75%, according to a 2017 paper. Both states spend a comparable percentage of their education budgets on teacher training and teacher salaries: Maharashtra spends 72% on salaries, and Karnataka spends 79%, with Rajasthan allocating the most at 86%. Maharashtra and Karnataka both spend 0.4% and 0.5% of their education budgets on training teachers.

With similar expenditure allocations in both states and similar numbers of trained teachers (95% in Karnataka and 99% in Maharashtra), Maharashtra likely needs to focus on the quality of its education to narrow the gap in maths and language.

(Sanghera is an intern with India Spend.)

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.