The ‘operation successful, patient dead’ tragicomedy

Teachers will ‘teach to the test’ and focus on ensuring that the student can write answers to questions related to the syllabus, rather than ‘teach the learner’
Last Updated : 23 March 2023, 21:24 IST
Last Updated : 23 March 2023, 21:24 IST

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The Karnataka Education Department recently announced common examinations for grade 5 and 8 students. The Schools Association appealed against this decision, contending that deciding to hold board exams at this late stage when students were already preparing for final examinations, would adversely affect students. Quashing the order on procedural grounds, the Karnataka High Court observed that the decision “to change the assessment and evaluation method was laudable” as it would help in “maintaining the standard of education” across the state. A subsequent 2-bench High Court judgement has allowed conducting common examinations, with a few caveats. However, most academicians are clear -- common examinations (usually held in a centralised manner) are anathema to the spirit and purpose of education.

Student assessment is broadly of two kinds -- summative and formative. Summative assessment aims to enable admission to courses, based on the marks or grade obtained. All entrance and ‘board’ examinations fall into this category. A summative assessment is like a blood test report, where additional information is necessary to identify what is to be done to restore good health. Likewise, marks, by itself, is of little use in identifying possibilities for student learning and development.

Formative assessments provide specific feedback on where the student has done well, and where they can improve. For instance, a teacher may give 6/10 marks for an essay without comment (summative assessment). Or, in formative assessment, give detailed comments on specific text in the essay and also overall comments on the language of the essay, its content and form. These comments can help the student to revise the essay or write a better essay next time. Hence, formative assessment is also called 'assessment for learning'; summative assessment is merely 'assessment of learning'.

Formative assessment helps the teacher to understand the learner better and revise their own teaching content and pedagogies. The NCERT National Curricular Framework 2005 recommended adopting formative assessment, through a model of 'Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation' (CCE). Continuous evaluation is implemented by the teacher weaving in assessment as a part of teaching, like how a coach continuously identifies weak spots in a sportsperson and modifies their training regimen, to iron out these weaknesses, while retaining strengths.

It is also necessary that assessment be 'comprehensive'. Different learners have diverse areas of interest and aptitude. To lead a good life, a wide variety of abilities is necessary, and a comprehensive school assessment is required to encourage holistic development. Testing a small set of curricular areas unfairly makes failures of many learners whose aptitudes and interests may lie elsewhere. Such narrow testing is also a reason for the widely held belief that success in examinations rarely translates into a well-lived life.

Common assessments are entirely based on written examinations -- as only that lends itself to ‘standardisation’ -- and allow for evaluation to be done by people other than the school’s teachers. This mode, however, encourages 'rote learning', where students simply memorise the content and reproduce it in the examinations, without full comprehension. Rote learning is a curse of Indian education. While school-level examinations also have a written examination component, these can be replaced by other assessment methods, such as presentations, observations, portfolio of assignments. CCE approach encourages schools to vary assessments, instead of relying on writing.

The honourable judge opined that having uniform exams for students across schools would be a measure for 'equality'. However, uniform examination is an extremely iniquitous and unjust measure. Our society is highly unequal. Children come from vastly different socio-economic strata. Families in poverty strain to ensure their children are fully fed, and hence are in no position to afford well-resourced schools. Struggling in the unorganised sector does not allow illiterate parents energies to support their children’s learning at home. Hence, having the same examination across schools ignores the huge differences in learner contexts, and tend to benefit those who come from elite backgrounds. It will be extremely unfair to those already disadvantaged, as teachers will force them to ‘mug’, or worse ‘copy from the board’ to write the examinations. Actually facilitating student learning, to enable them to answer syllabi-based questions, would be far more time and resource intensive. Perhaps even impossible in given academic-year time frames, given significant learning deprivation due to the unwarranted school closures during Covid.

Teachers will ‘teach to the test’ and focus on ensuring that the student can write answers to questions related to the syllabus, rather than ‘teach the learner’, based on their current learning levels and needs. These two -- "teaching the syllabus" vs "teaching the learner" have become two unfortunately conflicting paradigms in our system. Choosing syllabus completion over learning is akin to the “operation successful, patient dead” tragicomedy, where the students will write and even pass the examination, without really learning.

Centralised examinations make comparisons inevitable. The ranking of students is followed by the ranking of schools. SSLC district ranks are reported every year, though they do nothing for learning and only create negative pressures on teachers. Teachers and schools, feeling the pressure to 'compete', will be forced to waste scarce school time on examination preparation, instead of the much more valuable task of teaching. Centralised examinations are a bane to real learning.

In the case of SSLC or PU board examinations, one could argue that summative assessments are essential to filter 'good students' into 'better institutions' that have higher demand, and ensure that students who are doing badly, go to worse institutions. This, by itself, shows our higher education system to be painfully iniquitous. In the case of grade 5 or 8, even this cruel requirement does not exist. Avoiding centralised examinations for these grades will save the ‘patient’ and prevent their casualty in the successful operation that the system is keen to conduct.

(The writer is Director, IT for Change, and member of the ‘National Coalition on the Education Emergency’)

Published 23 March 2023, 18:26 IST

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