I wanted to talk a bit about my thoughts on Assessments here. Firstly assessment need not just be in the form of examinations. Exams are only a part of assessments.
What are some of the purposes of assessments?
- For the teacher to learn what the students know. It is extremely important for the teacher to know what the students understand and do not understand.
- For the students to know what they know. People’s own idea of what they know and do not know often tends to be wrong. A formal test or exam helps the student more clearly understand their own weaknesses. This is more important at higher levels of learning. At a primary level where the instruction is mostly teacher driven, this is not a very important goal. To use modern terminology, meta-cognitive abilities are considered the most important for learning. i.e. The child should learn to learn. They should understand what they know, how they can test their own knowledge, how they learn etc. For this too assessments are important.
- To serve as a beacon for the teacher. If the assessment is designed by a higher body, this helps the teacher to understand what is the expected outcome for a course that he or she is teaching.
- Ranking the students. Often we need to rank the students to provide admissions for higher education, selection for scholarships etc. based on certain academic criteria. Exams serve the purpose of ranking the students.
- Driving policy. Data from assessments or examinations can provide information to policy makers that can drive policy related to education and development.
The reason I have taken Assessments as one of the first topics for discussing here is because I believe this is about the biggest problem facing education in India. None of the above stated goals are being served satisfactorily by the various assessments being conducted.
Where are we now?
Most of the Indian states follow some version of Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation or CCE. This is also mandated by RTE Act! In Tamilnadu primary schools, the school year is divided into 3 terms and each term they have a Summative Assessment at the end of the term. At the end of each lesson the teacher conducts a Formative Assessment. The purpose of the formative assessment is to assess how the children are learning the lesson so that the teacher can do some course correction if required for children who are not on the right track. Summative assessment is supposed to test the children on all the lessons of the term and also see how they have integrated these concepts with the broader subject materials learnt till then. Formative assessments were further broken into two sections FA(a) and FA(b). FA(a) covers expression of the concept learnt through games, dance, art etc. whereas FA(b) is the more traditional pen and paper kind of assessment.
These formative and summative assessments should meet the goals 1 and 2 of assessments as I laid out earlier. By providing some sample assessments and manuals they also to a large extent meet goal 3 in the list.
Government has created elaborate resources to train the teachers on conducting the CCE. Here are some materials created by the Tamilnadu SCERT for CCE. If you read some of these manuals you will think you have died and gone to a heaven of perfect schooling!
So what has happened? The problem is in the implementation. They first of all formalised something which ought to have remained informal — formative assessments. Rather than stopping with telling the teachers what needs to be done and allowed them the freedom to assess the children in the way they think makes sense, they specified it in a lot of details. Teachers more or less stopped applying their minds and just started using standard assessments available to conduct their FAs. Further for whatever reason FAs started getting conducted at the end of teaching the lesson rather than in the middle of it. As the name suggests it is supposed to assess the knowledge as a formative stage to do course corrections. Thus the purposes of FAs were largely defeated.
This formality extended to the SAs as well. Very few school teachers created their own FAs or SAs. At least SAs were created by some teachers as these are typical pen and paper assessments. But the thing that should have been done informally in every class, FA, was almost always taken straight from the ABL cards or teachers’ manuals.
The schools are expected to record and report the scores from the FAs and SAs to the higher officials. At higher classes like 10th and 12th, the marks from the FAs and SAs will also factor in the overall board exam marks. This completely killed CCE. Teachers cannot possibly go about being honest with these assessments. How many schools will give anything less than 25 out of 30 on any of the practical exams? CCE became like that. Children and their parents expected the school to give them maximum marks for the internal component at the board exam classes. CBSE recognised the sham it has become and has more or less reverted to the old style board exams. Internals only count for 20% marks now.
In other classes too, the teachers started fudging these assessments to not have any trouble with the higher officials or parents. All children are supposed to pass in every class till 8th std. If the child is not at grade level it reflects on the teacher and not on the child. With this pressure why would the teacher want to take the risk of having a child score poorly in an assessment?
In TN primary schools, one week before the summative assessments, the schools give the children the papers and coach them on all the answers. Then the children are expected to just recollect and answer the questions during the actual exam. For children who cannot answer the questions in spite of this, the teacher helps by giving the answer or even asks the bright children to go around and help the other children complete the assessment. Note this is not something exceptional that happens in a few bad schools.This happens in EVERY government school I have ever been to!
During the days of ABL (which was replaced by a different teaching methodology starting 2018–19), there were FA cards which was what the teacher was meant to use for the assessment. If you hold up the card against the light you can see the answers etched in them! This is the case once again in most of the schools.
So rather than assessments contributing positively to the process of education, it institutionalised rote learning and killed any sense of fairness or merit in the children.
Board exams conducted at the end of your 10th or 12th standard are there to meet the goals 3 and 4 that I laid out earlier. They serve as a beacon for the schools on where the children should be after serving the full term at the school. They also provide the ranking required for admission to higher education.
Unlike the CCE, most people are familiar with what has become of the board exams. Competitive dumbing down of the board exams and mark inflation are familiar to most people There is massive cheating at every stage from writing the exam to corrections to recorrections.
In Tamilnadu some 95%+ of the questions are directly from the textbooks or from a Question Bank. In Maths, the questions are repeated without even changing the numbers! If this is a beacon for all schools and teachers, how can we ever fight rote learning? But the board and the government are also caught in a bind. If they attempt to increase the number of questions that involve some reasoning and is not directly from the textbooks or QB, there are huge protests from the parents and teachers. In states like Bihar, even if the education department tries to control copying there is protest from parents and teachers!
Further performance of the students in the board exams is considered as a proxy for how education is doing in the state. So every state wants to keep showing a steady increase in the percentage of children passing in the board exams. Average marks keeps increasing while education levels keep dropping.
Given the low quality of the board exams, admissions to courses that are in demand have started having their own entrance examinations. There is JEE (main and advanced) for engineering, NEET for medicine, NATA for art and architecture etc. Given the variations in the syllabus and testing methodology for these examinations, there has been an explosion of coaching classes. The costs of these and access to these are limited to the rich, urban children. This makes the system highly unfair.
There are people who argue against ranking exams as a whole. I am not one of them. Even in the best of circumstances, there are many problems with ranking examinations as the criteria for selection for higher education or jobs.
- The coaching and other inputs that the privileged get over the under-privileged certainly makes ranking exams unfair.
- Performance in exams has only a weak correlation with performance in higher education or jobs for which they are used as criteria.
- Performance at the exams become the goal of education and the broader goals of education get sidelined.
But despite all this, “good” ranking exams serve their goals of being a beacon and in ranking the students reasonably well. Here is an article that talks about how SAT in US is fairer than a system without SAT.
However as stated earlier the problems with the exams in India are much more fundamental and these need to be eliminated.
- Test actual learning instead of just the memorising ability. Other competitive exams are far better than the board exams in this matter.
- Getting a high pass percentage should not be the yardstick for evaluating an education system. Having a lot youth with 12th std pass with no value for that doesn’t serve any purpose. A broader social dialogue is required to change this mindset.
- Eliminate the huge number of exams and reduce it to a minimum. Most streams should base their admissions on the board exams. Only when there are significant quantifiable reasons, other competitive exams should be allowed. If there are exams that control access to a large sector of opportunities, training for this should also be made mandatory at all schools.
Education Surveys and Policy Making
Finally coming to goal 5, how is the government measuring the health of the education. As mentioned in the previous section, because of a lack of better survey, governments use the board exam results as a proxy for the state of education and therefore manipulate these exams to show improvement in education.
Standardised testing where the results are comparable across years is still nowhere to be seen in India. Some surveys are being done.
- National Achievement Survey or NAS — This is conducted by NCERT. It is conducted at 3rd, 5th and 8th standard children once every three years. It is a sample survey and is conducted only at 5 schools in every district. The tests are designed well and test the learning levels as recommended by NCERT. The reports from NAS give the areas of strength and weaknesses for different states but doesnt go beyond that.
- Tamilnadu conducts another State Level Achievement Survey or SLAS. The question papers till recently were developed by SCERT and were much worse than the NAS question papers and had direct reference to the text book material (i.e. did not test the curriculum knowledge but the textbook knowledge). But in the last year they changed the SLAS to also test with the same paper as NAS. This has a much bigger sample of 5 schools per block and is conducted every year but I am not sure what the reports contain. Their reports do not seem to be available publicly.
- ASER by Pratham — Pratham an NGO started conducting ASER a survey to measure basic reading and arithmetic skills of children. Their findings were shocking. In most states majority of the children in 5th std couldn’t read a 2nd std text or do a division sum. Its simplicity communicates very powerfully as these are things that anyone can understand. Unfortunately the way this assessment is conducted is very subjective and this shows up in the wild swings in the results and the poor correlation with the much better conducted NAS.
You can read this article in Hindu that compares the results of NAS and ASER. This also talks about the results of India’s participation in PISA. India was represented by just two states (TN and HP) in the 2009 version of PISA. It ranked 87th out of 88 countries and then decided it will stop participating in PISA.
In short the assessments framework in India during the schooling years requires a massive overhaul. Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) that should be providing continuous information about the progress of the students to the teachers and to the students or their parents is corrupted beyond recognition and only survives in the reports it generates. There is no truth behind the data in these reports.
Board exams in most boards have become completely rote based and are competing to dumb themselves down and award more marks to their students. This creates the environment for a plethora of competitive exams and corresponding coaching classes. These make the system very unfair for the rural poor.
Broad surveys that aid a government in comparing the performance of the student population across years is still lacking. The closest available is for now Pratham’s ASER which is also flawed in many ways.
All these need to be addressed urgently to improve our education system.