What are we assessing our students for?

By: |
New Delhi | Published: November 14, 2016 6:03:16 AM

Besides year-end exams, emphasis must be given to classroom assignments, project work, viva and practical. New Education Policy also talks about examination reforms.

Practical exams were planned to help assess students’ skills—knowledge could be tested through written tests and skills could be tested through practical exams.Practical exams were planned to help assess students’ skills—knowledge could be tested through written tests and skills could be tested through practical exams.

In India, examinations generally make news, but sadly for all the wrong reasons. Traditionally done to assess learning outcomes and for checking the learning progress of a student, examinations have now become the only yardstick for career and success. The main objective, therefore, has been lost over the years. Exams are now more challenging and competitive than ever before, putting tremendous pressure on students. The result is reflected in the statistics, which indicate that, being unable to deal with the stress of exams, nearly 10,000 students commit suicide every year. Yet we continue to view exams as the gateway to success and failure in life. So, what really ails our examination system?

Examination objective

Over the years, we have forgotten to address the main question—what are we really assessing the students for? This is a very elementary question and needs a much deeper introspection, since all the stakeholders, including students, appear to have a different opinion about this. Educators, school-owners, students and parents need clarity on why are exams important? And why are they conducted?

Currently, under the no-detention policy, students take exams from class 8 onwards only, and hence must know what is expected out of them.

Question-paper design

Today, exams are designed in such a way that instead of testing the learning progress and depth of knowledge, they merely test memorising capacity of students. The examination patterns and the method of scoring have also remained unchanged for so many years, aggravating the existing challenge. This results in having set questions and set answers, which, in turn, encourages students to memorise only the correct answers. Moreover, the mechanical process of rote learning undermines the very purpose of obtaining the knowledge.

Question items

Multiple-choice questions were introduced to remodel the examination pattern in order to reduce subjectivity. However, what has been completely missed out is the requirement for question items to be able to also judge greater outcomes of education, such as application, synthesis, judgment and parallel parameters.

Reporting of exam scores

Given that in our country there are multiple school boards and standards, the relative performance of every student should be shared. In addition, the process of paper checking must be made transparent. In fact, it was found that in some states such as Karnataka, Jammu & Kashmir and Gujarat, the number of reassessment requests has reduced over the years, since the time the school board started sharing copies of answer sheets with students for a fee.

Practical examinations

Practical examinations were planned to help assess students’ skills. The core thought was that knowledge objects could be tested through written tests and skills could be tested through practical exams. However, what was not envisaged was that with practical exams done internally in schools, this would merely become eyewash. Cursory reviews indicate that most students usually get full marks or near to full marks in their practical examinations. How is that possible?

Exit or entrance

School exams at secondary or higher secondary levels must be viewed as exit tests to a formal body of learning spread over the years. It is not expected that this exam simultaneously becomes the entrance exam for graduate studies. This unwanted overlap hurts students, who end up focusing on the next level of learning without adequately completing the earlier one. Also, students end up studying for both the exams, with the sole objective of clearing them, rather than mastering the subject areas.

The need for examination reforms has also been highlighted in the New Education Policy, which aims not only to build better learning outcomes amongst students, but also to make them more employable.

Introduction of technology in conducting examinations is one of the priority areas of reforms, and not just in technology-based examinations. Technology-based exams can also offer adaptive paper sets, randomisation of question items as well as reduce some of the other challenges in conducting examinations like paper leakages, question biases, etc.

Besides year-end exams, we have to focus on providing equal emphasis to classroom assignments, project work, viva and laboratory & practical classes. At the same time, continuous and comprehensive evaluations should be done to balance these with year-end exams. Instead of marks, awarding students with grades across multiple exams can promote learning.

However, simply reforms in the examination system cannot bring about a holistic change, unless we have improved curriculum, betterment in teacher training, and good school text books and better infrastructure.

Appearing for exams should not be like participating in a race, where clearing the exam is akin to winning a medal and a place on the podium. Reforms are necessary to ensure exams are stress free, relevant and aligned to the current needs of education and skill development. In this context, the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”) should inspire us to ensure that our students learn better to become faster, higher and stronger in life rather than in examinations, if nothing else.

The author is MD & CEO, BSE Institute Limited

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