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Pitfalls of assessment

Quality of education won’t improve without a sensitive system of assessment

Pitfalls of assessment




Milind was one of our most reliable Factory Personnel Managers for several years. In a particular year, when we rated his performance better in our performance appraisal system, I congratulated him and expected him to be happy. His response baffled me. With practically no expression on his face, he said, “Look, I perform in the same way every year. It is you people who rate me differently each time.” His comment set me thinking. During 2000, following intense discussion on the issue of performance management, we re-positioned our performance appraisal purely as “development-oriented” and merely one of the many inputs for making decisions about people. We went out of our way to communicate to employees that performance rating was not a pronouncement of the organisation’s judgement on the employee.

During the past few years, a number of large and leading corporates have dramatically changed their performance management process. Some have abolished the entire process, some have positioned it as purely a “development process” and some have completely re-structured it. There have been several complex triggers for such a change in approach. The triggers include inability to establish a robust performance management system, inability to build capacity within the organisation to manage performance, sociological and generational changes among employees and the ever-changing, extremely complex business environment.

Almost 20 years ago, when I visited some government schools that had a large number of tribal children I found them struggling with language and mathematics. Their teachers were rather frustrated since the home environment of these children did not help much. What the teachers ignored was that these children were extremely talented in climbing trees, physical activities, playing certain musical instruments, and so on. They could catch butterflies and chase certain animals with an ease that was not possible for other children. They were fiercely independent and could bear with extreme risks. However, the school assessment process did not have any scope to factor in the differences in the abilities of children.

Unanswered questions

As I became more associated with the school education system, I realised there were serious difficulties in applying common learning measurement yardsticks for children, at least in the early years of their education. I had more questions that I did not get answers to. What is the scientific basis of determining the learning levels for different standards? Who has decided how much the child should learn in a period of 10 months? Why do we insist that all children must learn the same subjects within the same time spans? Why have we structured school education almost like an assembly line in a manufacturing unit as if the child is a product and at each phase the teacher keeps adding learning levels — like manufacturing parts — expecting a ready product at the end of the assembly line?

Do we recognise that, unlike a product in an assembly line, the learner is able to contribute to him/herself? Why do we have a 50 or 100 marks paper that the students have to write in two or three hours? Are we testing what the learner knows or how much the learner can answer within a certain stipulated period? At least in the first two years of schooling, while the child is struggling with several challenges like medium of instruction (which is often different from the home language of the child), and acquiring basic skills such as reading and writing, why don’t we assess the child verbally? Do we factor in the home environment of the child sufficiently while assessing? I entered Class 1 at the comparatively late age of seven. However, due to my home background, I was able to fluently read and write even before I entered the school.

Probably the most important question is, ‘How strongly is the assessment process aligned to the curricular objectives?’

Due to the current Indian socio-economic situation wherein almost 65-70 percent of the people are below the international poverty line, the first priority of most families is ensuring their child begins contributing economically to the household. The unspoken equation in their mind is education leads to a better job and therefore better money. Given this expectation, education has become entirely examination-oriented. Examinations are significantly divorced from the objectives of education envisaged by the National Policy on Education. The assessment of learning does not even attempt to evaluate critical issues like acculturation, developing sensitivity, empathy, respect for others, constitutional values like socialism, secularism and democracy, as well as development of life-skills and vocational skills to contribute to the national development agenda.

Exam failure

In my simple understanding, assessment ought to be a credible process to provide feedback on children’s learning in the context of the overall objectives of learning. However, if the current education deals with only a very limited part of such preparation, our dream of enshrining constitutional values in developing responsible citizens will continue to be a pipe-dream. And this despite the presence of a highly stressful, competitive and threatening examination process that even leads to a number of suicides among students every year.

I get seriously distressed when teachers highlight the non-achievement in Hindi language of my grandson in Class 3, ignoring the fact that he scores very highly in maths and computer science. They fail to recognise that he is able to do several additions and multiplications of even two-digit figures without using pen and paper.

Even more distressing is the fact that cultural aspects such as sensitivity to others, participative (versus authoritative) approaches, team work, respect towards children from other cultures, religions, castes, creeds and so on  are not assessed at all. When we have repeatedly researched the Class 10 (board) examination papers for several years together, it clearly emerges that the examinations are almost entirely focused on knowledge retrieval and very little on application of such knowledge or being required to synthesise various knowledge aspects in an integrated manner.

As mentioned in the NCF, all efforts to improve the quality of education would come to nought if we don’t have an assessment system that holistically assesses whether the goals of the curriculum are achieved. Teachers, parents and learners — the three most critical stakeholders — need to deeply understand and align their views on assessment. And this cannot be achieved by requiring teachers to superficially fill some formats under CCE or mandating a ‘no detention policy’ without taking the stakeholders into confidence. It is imperative to incorporate ‘assessment’ as a vital part of pre-service and in-service teacher education.

Holistic assessment of learners is not only important to achieve the education goals for learners, it can also serve as a powerful tool for teachers for their own professional development. The results of learning assessment can provide pointers to teachers on what teaching strategies are effective and which strategies need to undergo change.  

Dileep Ranjekar is CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation