Nearly 60 per cent of pupils cannot read a paragraph with long sentences and a third cannot read a short sentence or solve simple subtraction, addition or division problems, a study has found.
The research, involving 330,000 children in 9,500 schools in villages across 28 states and territories, paints a damning picture of the effectiveness of schools at a time when the country is trying to meet its target of giving every child a good-quality primary education by 2010.
The annual status of education report by Pratham, a non-governmental organisation, was released by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the planning commission.
The shortfall in skills is particularly surprising given that teacher attendance is 75 per cent, which is considered high in India. But it might be explained by poor student attendance varying from 52 per cent in Bihar to 90 per cent in Kerala.
Madhav Chavan, director of progress at Pratham, said staff must be allowed to teach more imaginatively. "Instead of developing reading and writing skills in the initial stages, the emphasis is on teaching from textbooks,"
Some normally high-achieving states such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which are hubs for the IT industry, were ranked in the bottom five: 76 per cent of 10-year-olds in Karnataka and 68 per cent in Tamil Nadu could not solve simple division problems.
In Maharashtra, 50 per cent of seven to 14-year-olds cannot read a standard textbook for seven-year-olds, and 47 per cent of 12 to 14-year-olds cannot divide three digits by one.
Mr Montek Singh has called for better monitoring of schools.