Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about
The cartoon gone viral goes like this: In a clearing in the jungle, a variety of animals sit facing ‘the examiners’ asking them to prove their worth. The examiner says, "For a fair selection, everybody has to take the same exam. Please climb that tree', indicating one of the trees behind them. The caption takes off on what Einstein said - ‘If we judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid’
Being tested is a traumatic process, even if we get used to it. Subjecting oneself to the judgement of others informs and influences our sense of self worth. Every leader knows that they can use the evaluation process to either encourage or reduce their team members to rubble. It gets even more difficult when the testing is via a faceless standardised test that may even determine the course of your life.
The critics of standardised testing say that the tests do not prove a thing. In fact, in using them to judge the worth of people, one does a disservice to the candidates, expecting them to conform in ways that neither suit them nor a clear purpose. On the other hand, standardised testing offers a ‘fair’ way to compare the competence of candidates across a spectrum. What could be more fair than asking everybody to perform the same task? Well, in the cartoon they ask the fish, the fowl, the frog and the elephant to climb a tree. One wonders if it was a composite task, would the consequences be any different? Is there merit in creating a more complex standard - would it serve us better? This would of course beg more questions - should the complex (multivariate) test be based on the requirements ahead or should it be based on the average expected abilities of those being tested? Both pathways are legitimate. If climbing a tree is essential to survival, it has to remain integral to the test, does it not?
Or does it? Does it not depend on the purpose of the test? If the test is to select the best candidates for a job, it needs to be designed according to the needs of the job. In our cartoon, if the job is plucking fruit from high branches, the test has to include the ability to climb a tree. If the job is about finding pretty rocks, or edible plants from the base of the lake, then clearly climbing trees is useless. Competitive tests are designed so with an eye to matching the abilities of the candidates to the tasks ahead. And the other tests? (Do we even need them?) Yes we do - else how would we know how well we were doing in the learning process? Tests give useful feedback against learning objectives.
Tests themselves are going through testing times. No one denies the importance of low stakes testing in the learning process. Testing provides valuable feedback to the student and to the teacher and school on progress, and allows them to design corrective action. (Begs the question - how many schools actually do this? Are test results merely forgotten judgements, leaving emotional scars or do they actually form a part of constructive feedback?) Tests have been found to be a valuable tool in memorisation - both research and anecdotal data support this - and schools with weekly tests to support rote learning regimes are a testament to this view. Tests are probably the only way to establish baseline abilities at the begining of a learning process and then to measure progress. The effectiveness of learning can only be seen if improvement is measured.
The stakes in testing are often higher than warranted, and it is this high stakes testing that is receiving much flak globally. If performance in a standardised test is to determine the future of the child, either opening or closing doors for the rest of their lives, then the test itself bears a great responsibility. Not only are the students being tested, but the test they are being administered deserves scrutiny. For example, the entrance test to an IIT is a high stakes test, as is the class XII CBSE examination in India. These will make or break a student’s future. Other tests that could influence the pathway of a child during their life at school have been diluted upto class 8 - now non performing students are not held back to repeat a year. They progress as their compatriots (by age) do, regardless of ability. This of course reduces stress, but also compounds problems as the students progress through years with a range of learning. Much of this comes to a head in class IX, the first time there are consequences to non performance. There is criticism of this policy too, as those students who lag do not get a second chance at any level - they are forced to march to the pace set by the curriculum. Either way, India has evidence that schools are failing their students - many in class V are reported to be at reading levels two to three years lower. Much of this remains hidden in the absence of well designed testing.
Testing has another great objective - calibration - to compare, (to select), to understand the merits of one system vis a vis another, and so, to understand the merits of a candidate from a system outside the local or national system. Even on the global stage Indian students did not perform well, so much so that they did not join in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) this year, having ranked 73rd out of 74 countries in the previous round. While admittedly there were problems in the way the tests were managed, and there were cultural translation issues (more on that another time) it is also true that the tests revealed lacunae in the way Indian students study and learn. The linear focus on a single type of testing has stunted Indian students ability to adapt and deliver. The interesting question here is whether India feels unprepared for the test, or whether the test itself needs to work harder and evolve to suit a range of countries. This year when Shanghai in China ranked first, followed closely by other countries in the far east, knocking the traditional leaders off their perch there was much discussion about the methodology.
The question that remains is whether any testing can actually compare adequately. Countries have different contexts, income disparities, nutrition and health parameters and attitudes to learning (and testing). Is any global test ever going to be able to show fair comparisons? No standardised testing can ever be comprehensive - the process of standardising is by definition the loss of tonality and range. To allow these tests to rule our life and learning, to hold them as judge and jury is to give them more importance than they deserve. Elevating tests to the position of our masters - leaders of pedagogy and content in classrooms is the ultimate failure of education. Let tests remain a part of the toolkit, used appropriately, for a clear purpose and with(in) reason. No more.