An oft-quoted African adage in educational writing is “weighing a pig does not fatten it.” It can apply to a multitude of situations, but has been used most frequently to critique standardised testing of students. Standardised tests evolved over time, as countries sought to harmonise and make uniform what children learn. These test children on standard questions, in a uniform manner of test administration and evaluation. Internationally, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) are some well-known tests. In India, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) started the National Achievement Survey (NAS) in 2001, and four rounds of the NAS—for classes 3, 5 and 8, and one for class 10—have been conducted till date.
So, is standardised testing a solution or a problem? Actually, it’s both, depending on how and why it is conducted. A standardised test is like weighing the pig; how much has the child learnt. Teaching the child is akin to the act of feeding and nurturing the pig, so as to make it fat. Ideally, the objective of assessments is ensuring that children learn. This is possible only if the assessment is used to help the child bridge his leaning gaps. If it is limited to ranking schools, states or countries, then it remains an activity that does not lead to the outcome of children learning. Ranking, naming and shaming may spur competition amongst states and countries. A famous example is of China overhauling its school education after a poor show in the PISA (which tests 15-year-old kids), to emerge at the top in 2009. The western countries termed the topping of the PISA as a “Sputnik moment,” leading to a frenzy of efforts to improve teaching learning in these countries.
Countries have different approaches to student learning and assessments. Some educationally progressive countries like Japan, Finland and Singapore have only school-level testing in the mandatory years of schooling; roughly corresponding to the Indian elementary education (classes 1 to 8). These countries use formative assessment; evaluating children to help them learn further at the class level. After these formative years, the children are subject to standardised board exams or testing. Finland takes pride that its schools are standardised-testing-free zones till class 9. Countries like the United States of America, Australia and the United Kingdom have standardised testing at earlier grades. Finland has topped the PISA, so clearly early and more assessment is not itself the reason for top results.
We have a mixed bag in India. Though the NAS started in 2001, few were aware of its findings. Those who were aware, did not find them actionable. The NAS ranked states, provided comparisons between urban-rural, girls-boys, etc, but no clues to a teacher about what impedes children’s learning. In addition, different rounds were not comparable—the first two based on the Classical Theory and the last two on the Item Response Theory. In each subject and class, few states touched or crossed the midway score, against the maximum weighted score of 500. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a private habitation-based sample survey of children’s basic grasp over numeracy and literacy, achieved what the NAS had not. It made quality of education headlines in the media. People were interested and worried about student learning, even though the ASER was a rudimentary test, not as sophisticated as the NAS.
Ideally, each NAS cycle should have initiated a detailed pedagogical analysis of learning gaps and solutions for correction. Unfortunately, it did not go beyond publishing reports. Educational administrators, with the best of intentions, attempted course-correction by more testing. They competed in the number of assessments and data compilation; tracking districts moving up or down. The why and the how of learning get lost in the commotion. There is a rush before the next round to ‘practise’ model questions. The unintended consequence of the noble intention to assess is that the teacher teaches to the test, and holistic teaching takes a back seat.
Four rounds of the NAS and annual ASER all point to poor learning levels. A logical and effective response should be to address learning issues, rather than measure it over and over. Some states test at the beginning of the session, then after another two months, to ‘show’ the knowledge gain. There is no control sample to statistically prove the progress. Perhaps the only testing which is enabling for schools and teachers is Gujarat’s Gunotsav. Every teacher first assesses the child’s reading and writing, before testing the cognitive ability. The test ends at the school level, with only sample schools being revalidated externally, to ensure rigour in the system. The methodology has been widely shared time and again with other states, yet strangely reinventing the wheel is rampant, with multiple testing experiments.
It is time that the focus is on children in early grades mastering the basics. The focus should be on classroom pedagogy, monitored by a Gunotsav-like supervisory mechanism. The curriculum and learning achievements expected should be clear to the teacher and she should be allowed to teach at her own pace with own methods. Performance in class 10 boards and standardised assessments thereafter will be the measurable outcome. In a utopian scenario, a teacher should be assessing each child continuously, using standardised tools, to bridge learning gaps. The monitoring and centralised supervisions should build the teacher’s capacity. Only then will transformational change take place.
By Maninder Kaur Dwivedi
Writer is Adviser, NITI Aayog. Views are personal.