In defence of 'grade-retention'

In the last over five years, school education in India had also become a policy-crucible. The Right to Education Act, 2009 (RTE) stipulated the no-detention policy (NDP) mandating that every student until grade VIII be promoted to the higher grade regardless of her/his scores. It is in the process of getting discontinued. Even the National Education Policy 2016 has suggested implementing NDP until grade V. It was a case of a valuable idea gone wrong due to lack of adequate infrastructure around it.

One such infrastructural requirement for NDP’s success was Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CEE). Path dependency of historical constructions have led us to believe that the only way to examine a child’s performance is through (standardised) tests. This is equating children’s brains like a homogenous products. The idea that students of same age should sit in one batch, and then study a specific subject in a specific hour on a specific day reflects a factory mode of producing knowledge.

Existing policies on detaining students rely on the idea that repetition is the answer to slow learners. But research has shown that grade repetition has higher cost than benefits, and disrupts social adjustment of an already poor-performing child. In poor societies like India, it encourages students to drop out. Indeed, students could be assessed based on a number of parameters. The CEE encouraged a holistic assessment, and hence, was a welcome step. But for that to work, a large number of exceptionally trained teachers was a must.

The result is that teachers are saddled with administrative work that attempts to fulfill CEE guidelines only on paper. Less motivated students do not have incentives to study since they know they’d be promoted anyway. My interviews with teachers in Delhi government schools suggests how ‘horrific’ the implications of NDP have been. Majority of students have lost respect for any learning whatsoever, they are indifferent to teachers and education systems overall; and teachers dread going to classrooms. The ASER reports and falling standards of learning strengthens this point.

Surely we must empower students in their holistic development rather than their scores in the exams. But then the system must become receptive to it. As long as college selection models and employment opportunities crucially hinge on students’ exam scores, alternative modes of learning may not be desired as the central method in mass pedagogy. It is important therefore, to fix the environment in which NDP can become meaningful.

In fact, if CEE was to be implemented in spirit, NDP may not have been needed at all. A holistic assessment would have been enough to dispel our fixated notions of grade-repetition and cultivate a more flourishing ecosystem for learning to prevail. The RTE’s primary objective of ensuring access of education without any discrimination cannot be sidelined in this debate. The discrimination on the basis of differing learning abilities is important to be addressed, and properly designed (and implemented) CEE should have been the answer. Most of us agree that testing the learning outcomes is important; it is the manner in which it has to be done is where diverse ideas are needed. The CEE at present is a straight-jacketing, paperwork-fulfilling intervention. A well thought-out design, raising the number of adequately trained teachers, continuous research on pedagogical tools and making systemic changes to receptivity of differential learning skills would have been far more effective way to go.

Assessment systems
Without empowering and investing in training the law enforcement officials, we pass the so-called progressive legislations which either have little effect or get hijacked by elite stakeholders. Surely, hiring large numbers of highly qualified teachers, comprehensively designing CEE and imparting extensive training to teachers requires hard work and huge investments. And yet, benefits will take time. This is obviously not as attractive to a policymaker who only believes in quick-fixes. Education reforms (un)fortunately has repulsion to quick-fixes.

No policy action can work in isolation of the context in which it is located. And if laws must change, they ought to be accompanied by the infrastructure needed for them to work.

And please, while we are at it, can we be more sensitive to terminologies? ‘Detention’ or ‘fail’ as phrase is depressing to anyone, let alone young minds. Why can’t we call it ‘grade-retention’ or ‘social promotion’, which are the terms frequently used in many parts of the world?

(The writer teaches at O P Jindal Global University (JGU) and is the Deputy Director of International Institute for Higher Education Research and Capacity Building in JGU)

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