Why our students struggle in tests like PISA

Why our students struggle in tests like PISA

India has decided to participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2021. A small group of scientifically selected students from Chandigarh, the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the Navodaya Vidyalayas will write the test that year. I use insights from other assessments to analyse why Indian students do not, in general, perform well in international assessments like PISA.

India participated in a modern international assessment for the first time in 2009-10 when some students from Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh appeared in the PISA test. However, we performed very poorly – ranking 73rd out of 74 countries that participated in that round, finishing ahead of only Kazakhstan.

The result was so shocking that many people assume that it must have been an aberration. Some feel that the students may not have been prepared for the test. Others believe that the students may have been tested in English, which they were not proficient in (actually, all students were tested in their medium of instruction.) Still, others feel that the performance must have been poor because only government schools were tested – our private school students would have done much better. But a well-publicized study by Education Initiatives (EI) in 2006 and repeated in 2012 established that even students of our top schools would perform well below the international average in grade 4.

While the PISA questions may have different contexts, information about that context (for example, what genetically modified crops are) is always provided in the passage. Not just Indian children, but the world over, many children may not know much about these topics beforehand. One of the important skills tests like the PISA assess is how well students can understand key ideas related to new information.

Another international assessment, such as the TIMSS or even a good Indian test, like our own ASSET, uses questions that have examples from unfamiliar contexts. That is what tests if children have really learnt a concept and can apply it in real life.

Let us look at all the reasons why assessments like the PISA (or ASSET) turn out to be difficult for most Indian students.

 1.      The mentality that questions can be only from the textbook: Not only students but even teachers and parents fundamentally seem to believe that questions in Board and school exams must be of the pattern that students are familiar with, ideally matching questions in the textbook itself.

2.      Reading, reading, reading! Most application questions are based on a context which is first explained in the question. This requires students to read through at least a few paragraphs to understand what is being asked. Our average student has very poor reading ability and usually prefers to guess what the question must be by glancing through it.

 3.    Process of answering questions – pattern-matching versus problem-solving: Leading from the above two reasons, the strategy that students use to solve questions in typical Indian exams is very different from what is needed for tests like PISA. Firstly, it is quite easy for students to recognize question types in the Indian tests since all exams follow a set of patterns that they are familiar with or have prepared for (including through coaching and tuition classes). The process of solving the paper, then, is one of rapidly identifying the pattern, recalling the steps in the process and writing those steps. Almost every question follows this recall/reproduce the pattern.

 4.    Being put off by the unfamiliar: When Indian students encounter PISA-type questions, many of them freeze at the first sign of the unfamiliar and decide that they have not ‘learnt this question type’ and cannot solve it. Many students abandon the question (or decide to come back to it later) at this point. Note that the question itself may not be a difficult one if they cross this stage. For students who reach this stage, the question is not a difficult one. In fact, it is seen that students perform more poorly on unfamiliar questions than genuinely difficult ones!

 5.    Low understanding of processes or concepts and even comprehension skills: And finally, actual learning levels and understanding of concepts is low. The fact that mainstream exams do not test concepts in a different or unfamiliar way reduces student exposure as well as teacher incentive to focus on a genuine understanding of concepts.

Each of the above represents an entrenched, yet solvable problem in the Indian education system. Though there are no quick-fix solutions, there are key levers available to create change. Changing the pattern of Board Exam questions – and teacher training starting with teachers from grade 5 or so are two strong levers in our control. The fact that few seem to disagree that the system needs change and most would even agree with these broad approaches are also huge positives. In the journey to an India where every child is learning with understanding, the PISA is just the first milestone on the road.

(The writer is co-founder and Chief Learning Officer, Educational Initiatives)

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