NEW DELHI — Puja Sagar cannot read or write, but she makes sure her 13-year-old son, Gaurav, never misses school.
However, Sagar, a frail but hard-working cook, is worried that he is not learning much at school, even though he is in the eighth grade — thanks mostly to a controversial policy under which even poor-performing younger students cannot be held back at the end of a school year.
“Every time I ask my son to read aloud, he stares blankly at the textbook for a long time,” she said. “After some difficulty, he is able to string the alphabets and read slowly. Why did they promote him year after year if he cannot even read?”
She is not the only one asking the question these days.
There is a rising clamor among parents, teachers and school boards in India to end the practice of automatically promoting children until they reach the eighth grade even if their test scores are poor. The policy is a key component of an ambitious 2009 law that made education a fundamental right. The policy is aimed at curbing dropouts in rural areas, reducing stress and ensuring that youths stay in school until age 14.
But seven years later, many say that learning levels among children have dropped in a country where only 74 percent of the 1.2 billion people are literate, making India’s the largest illiterate population in the world. More than half the students in the fifth grade in rural state-run schools could not read second-grade textbooks in 2014, according to the annual survey by an education nonprofit ASER Center.
Even though school dropout rates in primary schools came down from 5.6 percent in 2013 to 4.3 percent in 2015, critics say there has been an accumulation of shoddy learning over the years. Last month, 21 of 27 Indian states asked the national government to revoke the no-fail policy at a meeting in New Delhi.
Parents blame teachers for not doing their job well, and teachers blame students for their casual attitude in classrooms.
“I am illiterate. My son is the biggest source of hope for me for a better future for the family,” Sagar said as she watched her son pack his school bag one recent morning. “Is he wasting time in school?”
The debate is not unique to India. What Americans call social promotion has been argued over for decades. This year New Mexico is considering a bill to end the practice, particularly for children going from the third to the fourth grade, because experts say that these students are unable to handle pressure of the schoolwork in the later grades and drop out.
A draft of the Indian government’s new education policy recommends that the no-retention policy be allowed only up to fifth grade and that weak students should be provided extra attention and two to three additional chances to score.
“We have completely botched up our primary education,” said T.S.R. Subramanian, the chairman of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy. “We must not allow some weak children to drag the whole classroom down. They distract and disrupt the classroom. And when they reach the ninth grade, they are suddenly dropped with a thud.”
The Indian school system has long been criticized for promoting rote learning with little focus on classroom discussions or extracurricular activities. The standardized tests in the 10th and the 12th grades are so competitive that there are frequent reports of student suicides and cheating.
But even an impoverished state such as Bihar in eastern India, with the lowest level of literacy in the country, is opposed to the no-retention policy.
“The psychological pressure on children to study in the early years has been removed,” said Ashok Choudhary, the education minister of Bihar. “Yes, it was introduced to decrease dropout rates. But now the situation is that parents enroll children into schools and then everybody conveniently forgets about them for eight years.”
This year, nearly 600,000 out of 1.1 million students failed the middle school standardized examinations in the 10th grade in Bihar, Choudhary said.
Some say revoking it is a regressive step in a poor country with social challenges.
“The assault on this policy harks back to the outdated concept that only through the threat of failure and punishment can you ensure learning,” said Anita Rampal, a professor of education in the University of Delhi who was one of the advocates of the law. “At least the children of the poorest and the most disadvantaged families are staying in the school system and parents are not pushing them into child labor or early marriage.”
One of the problems in many rural schools is absent or inattentive teachers, and Subramanian says India lacks an effective system to evaluate educators.
This year, the southern state of Telangana installed surveillance cameras in 1,500 rural schools to monitor teachers.
“If a child shows poor learning or fails the test, then it is the failure of the teacher, the school and the entire system,” said Kadiyam Srihari, the education minister of Telangana, who asked the government to continue the no-fail policy. “We have schools without power, toilet, running water, furniture or a wall in this country. Why should we punish only the child?”
On a recent morning at a state-run girls school in New Delhi, science teacher Renu Yadav asked ninth-grade students about electrons. Not one student made eye contact with her.
“They should know this by now. But they are behaving as if it is a new word,” Yadav said. “I shouldn’t be surprised. All these years, I have promoted these students even though I could see they had not learned anything. Holding them back and making them repeat the year is important. It serves as a timely wake-up call and prevents slacking.”
Tarush Bagai, 15, is one student who likes not having the pressure. He is passionate about tennis and spends six hours daily playing. But he gets average grades.
“I have been playing tennis since I was 6,” he said. “If I had the pressure of studying and scoring in tests during those formative years, I would never have been able to focus on sports.”