The national assessment regulator Parakh (Performance, Assessment, Review and Analysis of Knowledge for Holistic Development) is reportedly considering “similar type of questions” in exams across school boards in the country. It’s a welcome move in the context of the need for standardisation of education across the country, a key goal of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. The need for this has been felt for decades in view of the sharp variation in the way boards assess students. This is evident from the wide gap in performance of students from some state boards compared with others in the National Assessment Survey. This is particularly necessary for science and mathematics, given the continued importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment in STEM occupations to grow by 10.8% between 2021 and 2031, versus 4.9% for that in non-STEM occupations. The median wages for the former are likely to be more than 2x of what can be expected for the latter. The country can, thus, ill-afford to have even one school board lag the others in terms of learning outcomes in these subjects. A big problem that stemmed from the disparate assessment routes followed by the boards was grade inflation, which privileged students from boards that assessed students very liberally over those that were more conservative. This had led to competitive inflation that had seen Delhi University cut-offs reach absurd levels. The Centre’s push to Common University Entrance Test (CUET), with increasing adoption by state universities, seems to have largely taken care of that problem.
Parakh will of course need to walk a tightrope that delivers the desired end without sacrificing the boards’ (pan-India and those of the states) autonomy. The states’ autonomy on school education allows them to prioritise not just the language of instriction and assessment, but also certain curricular elements. Any move towards standardisation of examination questions would inevitably have implications for curriculum design and content, and that is where the autonomy of the boards/states could get infringed. More importantly, when it comes to the social sciences, the lofty aim of standardisation of assessment must not become a Trojan Horse for undermining independence on curricular content. While experts welcomed the government’s decision to revise the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) as this had been pending for long, they had also warned against making the exercise another tool to drive one ideology or the other. At the time the committee to review the NCF was formed in 2021, experts had pointed out the “stunning” omission of experts from the domain of school education. The government’s record on honouring autonomy of boards/educational institutions—under the past dispensations and the present one—has been less than exemplary. So, even as it moves on the important goal of assessment reform, Parakh will need to make its regulation more principles-based rather than prescriptive. There are many areas of assessment reforms, such as distribution of weightage between classroom assessment and examinations, assessing conceptual understanding versus memory-based learning that need work, almost as much as ensuring some degree of homogeneity on exam design across boards. Assessment reform at the school level should concern itself with getting to a consensus on improving learning outcomes across boards. Perhaps one way to get to this would be to seek inputs from the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), a federal body, along with independent experts, as education remains a concurrent subject.