The proposal to set up a national assessment centre, the PARAKH (Performance Assessment, Review, and Analysis of Knowledge for Holistic Development), as a standard-setting body under the Ministry of Education indicates the government is keen to provide a regular check on the education system.
By Prachi Jain Windlass
The role of assessments in education is finally getting the attention it deserves, as evidenced by the National Education Policy (the NEP 2020). Its focus on assessments and board examination reform is a step in the right direction—as they play a major role in ensuring students improve academically.
Grade 10 and 12 board exams represent two of the most important milestones in a student life, and are largely based on rote learning or memorisation. Teachers and students see how performance in board exams can be ‘hacked’ by memorisation even when it comes to application-based subjects. Since the aim is to remember facts and procedures, rather than understanding them, a parallel tuitions industry has developed that encourages students to practice from previous years’ papers and memorise answers. To date, most of the changes in board exams have aimed at making peripheral modifications—making these optional—but the hard-to-address problems of evaluating students’ genuine learning and conceptual understanding have been untouched.
The second issue is the absence of rigorous assessments at key stages of transition from primary to middle school, and then to senior. Lack of student outcome data precludes the opportunity for correction in early years. Students carry misconceptions and learning gaps till much later in life.
The way in which the NEP 2020 addresses assessments is refreshing; it acknowledges some of the weaknesses in the system and offers remedial measures. It lays out a roadmap in the way assessments are designed and administered. These recommendations are underlined by two broad perspectives that have potential in transforming education.
A competency-based assessment framework
The NEP recognises the need to evaluate “higher-order skills, such as analysis, critical thinking and conceptual clarity,” indicating a shift in the focus of assessments. By emphasising the need to redesign progress cards and board exams, it encourages testing core competencies to reduce academic pressure and the need for coaching classes. It suggests introducing standardised assessments in grades 3, 5, 8 to divert the pressure from 10th and 12th exam, and to track progress at multiple stages to facilitate early course-correction.
In our partnership with the Haryana government, we witnessed the benefits of such an approach. When we began our work in the state in 2014, only 40-45% of students performed at grade-level competencies. The bigger issue was teachers having “syllabus-completion” mindset versus a “competency-attainment” mindset. Setting up a system of measurement of improvement of learning outcomes at the elementary school level meant a remarkable improvement in student competency in just a few years.
An assessment in 2019 showed that 80% of these students were meeting or exceeding competency goals. This involved training teachers to teach according to the competency framework developed for each grade and bimonthly rounds of standardised assessments across all schools. Further, the administrative system was geared to use this aggregate data to troubleshoot in blocks/schools/classrooms where children were found to be behind the expected levels.
Establishing a national assessment centre
The proposal to set up a national assessment centre, the PARAKH (Performance Assessment, Review, and Analysis of Knowledge for Holistic Development), as a standard-setting body under the Ministry of Education indicates the government is keen to provide a regular check on the education system. This can be a game changer as it will not only help states offer quality standardised assessments, but also aid in providing regular data for improving quality. In the long term, this could help India align with global benchmarks such as the Programme for International Student Assessment.
At a time when we are racing to ensure students don’t get left behind due to Covid-19, this is good news. The NEP’s move to prioritise assessments can make India globally competitive in education, giving our students the opportunity to be out in front and lead the way for the rest of the world.