Teach to a better test

Re-design our examination system to assess understanding, problem-solving and communication skills; not rote memorisation of facts and formulae

Updated: Apr 6, 2018 04:19:46 PM UTC
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  “April is the cruelest month" – T.S Eliot, "Wasteland."  

It is going to be a particularly cruel April for close to 10 million students who are appearing for secondary school examinations across India this year. A mutual friend had recently introduced me to a Mr Murali, who is a finance professional and father of two. He seemed to be a practical and relaxed person. Our conversation soon turned to his daughter who is writing her Grade 10th board examinations from a leading school in South India.

His tone changed to despair when I asked him what his daughter was experiencing. “I have asked my daughter not to discuss the question papers with her friends after the test is over. I don’t want her to feel anxious by comparing her performance to others.”

Though he seemed reassured that his daughter would score well, he was frustrated that the examinations were not adding any real value. He wondered, “How do children pass with such good marks, yet their fundamentals are so weak? How come they remember that the formula for the volume of a cylinder is ‘pi-r-squared-h’ but do not know how that formula was derived?”

Mr. Murali has a point. The rot in our examination system runs deep. Angry students are out protesting on the streets in New Delhi over leaked Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) board question papers. More than 600,000 students in Uttar Pradesh opted out of appearing for board examinations when the state government decided to crack down on an organised “cheating mafia” with airport-style body frisking and closed-circuit cameras. Data analysis conducted by Professor Geeta Kingdon shows that the median score in CBSE's school-leaving examination has inflated by eight percentage points between 2004-2016. The pressure is so intense that examinations have become a matter of life and death for young people. IndiaSpend in a report, had said that in India, one person between the age of 15-29 years commits suicide every hour in India.

Unfortunately, our examination reform agenda has been a series of quick-fixes with little impact. The much-touted Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) system aimed to reduce the stress of high-stakes year-end examinations. It had the opposite effect. Students end up writing even more tests and teachers are burdened themselves with data collection. MIT Poverty Action Lab research reported that CCE has no significant impact on test scores. Rote memorisation of textbook content is still the primary focus of examinations in spite of a directive to introduce higher-order thinking skills (HOTS). British education researcher Newman Burdett studied CBSE examinations papers and found that it mostly tests direct recall of facts and repeats past question types.

So, what must we do to improve our examination system? Let us first start with four pragmatic action steps.

First and foremost, assessments should measure thinking skills, not rote memorisation. Modern workplaces demand that young people must continuously learn, innovate, and collaborate. These so-called “21st-century skills" can be best instilled in elementary school. And unless we explicitly assess these skills, there is no real incentive to teach them in the first place. We must, therefore, assess whether children understand concepts, solve real-life problems and communicate with impact. Every 8th grader must know the definition of buoyancy, the height of Mount Everest, the formula for surface area, our constitutional principles and the rules of grammar. But can she explain why a ship floats while a nail sinks? Can she infer why the tallest mountains are also the youngest? Can she calculate how much it will cost to paint her classroom? Can she write a letter to her legislator arguing for safer public transport for women? Young children who learn to think on their own, grow up as adults who can create and contribute.

Assessment data must be used for feedback on learning, not just filtration for admissions. "In India, we essentially have a world-class filtration system in place of an education system," says Kartik Muralidharan, professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego. Given the cut-throat competition for college seats, examinations have served primarily as a filter by focusing only on marks and ranks. In doing so, we have missed the more important role of assessments in giving actionable feedback on children’s learning so that teachers can respond in the classroom. It is not useful to know whether a child scored 80 percent in Math and ranked 10th in her 5th-grade class.

Assessment reports must lend meaning to those marks. It would be helpful if her teacher knew that he has trouble adding two unlike fractions. It would be even more valuable if the teacher knew that the reason why he cannot add fractions is that he does not understand factors and multiples. Using this information, she can then provide remedial instruction and help him progress over time.

We must allow private examination boards to inject innovation into the assessment system. For far too long, the central and state boards have enjoyed unquestioned authority. The boards have also usurped conflicting mandates of curriculum standards setting, assessment, and school regulation under one umbrella. They have neither guaranteed academic quality nor transparent governance. This must change. My colleague Ashish Rajpal wrote recently in The Times of India, “If the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) can administer education at the elite level, why should affordable private schools not have such options?” The Center for Civil Society has called for re-structuring the examination boards to create separate independent school regulation and assessment authorities. These ideas may sound heretical to the education establishment, but the time for “business-as-usual” is gone.

Finally, colleges must expand their admission criteria to value capability and not just certificates. Over the last few decades, entrance tests for a few elite engineering and medical colleges have dictated what schools teach and assess. So, children do not learn anything except how to “crack” that test and the examinations scores become a poor predictor of their performance. Emphasising the need to re-design engineering admission tests, Professor M.S.Ananth, former director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras once told us, “We get students who are only good at recognising test question patterns but lack the raw intelligence to solve engineering problems.” Moreover, the over-emphasis on abstract math and science content in our school curriculum has under-valued other relevant disciplines. Newly established private autonomous liberal arts colleges have already broken established norms by valuing critical thinking, persuasive communication and a well-rounded personality; not just board examination scores. Schools must respond rapidly to these shifts in college entrance norms.

Emphasising on thinking skills, using data to improve learning, allowing innovative alternatives and broadening the norms of college entrance can indeed set up the enabling conditions for a high-quality assessment system in our country.  However, these changes cannot be sustained unless parents, schools and society shift their mindsets.

Mr. Murali ended our conversation by sharing how his experience of working in a multi-national company has influenced his views as a parent. He said, “I meet accountants who cannot explain what a debit and credit is. Without leadership, team-building and problem-solving skills, our engineers find it difficult to succeed abroad. They gossip in corridors but keep quiet in meetings. Therefore, what children learn in school must be made useful for their future. And examinations results should reflect their grasping power." I wish more parents, school leaders, and policymakers would listen to what Mr. Murali has to say.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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