Pondicherry: A meaningful student assessment is essential for a robust and rigorous education system. In a country the size of India with its huge student population spread across millions of schools, the problem of summative assessment offers serious challenges, especially in senior classes when students’ decisions for college education are at stake. The situation is aggravated because of severe shortage of “seats” available in good colleges, creating cut-throat competition (and extreme stress for students and their parents).

How to ensure that all students are fairly assessed for their “learning”? Following the British model, we have a system of large-scale public examinations which are conducted by different “boards” at the Central or state level. Students attending classes X and XII in schools affiliated to the respective board must take the “board” examinations at the end of the academic year. A few years ago, students of class X in schools affiliated to CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) were given a choice to opt out of the public examination.

Conducting these examinations is a massive exercise in planning, organizing and implementation. But a tough question must be asked: Are these examinations really able to assess the students or are they simply being used as a means to narrow down the pool of contestants for the very limited seats available in “good” colleges?

A quick look at the first cut-off list for admissions to various programmes offered by colleges of the University of Delhi tells us that only students who score higher than 90 per cent (in some subjects, it goes as high as 98 per cent or even 100) have any chance to get a pick of their preferred college or subject. The rest have to either wait for second, third, fourth lists or pick a subject with a lower cut-off (which in some cases may not be even their second, third or fourth choice).

It is assumed that a higher percentage in the class XII board examination must reflect a higher intelligence or more developed analytical, reasoning or thinking skills. While that may be true in some cases, it may not be so always.

Two years ago, while helping my niece prepare for her class XII examination (CBSE), I became acutely aware of how the examination system is biased against certain types of learner temperaments and learning styles. I looked closely through some of the previous years’ question papers in subjects like Economics and English and also heard from my niece some of the “advice” her teachers had been giving in order to help “prepare” for the boards.

This is what she told me when after a lesson on the topic of Elasticity of Demand I asked her to try and explain something in her own words: “But my teacher says we should try to stick as close to the definition given in the textbook, so it is better if I memorize that. Why bother with my words?”

Students who can memorise well stand a very good chance at scoring high in these examinations. If they can also follow the prescribed word limit given in the question paper, that’s another big plus. Obviously, this is most easily accomplished when one can memorize perfectly the content from the assigned textbook. The textbooks incidentally are also written in a “test-friendly” format, even including the sample questions from previous years’ examination papers. So “teaching to the test” is now made simpler! Whether one has understood or assimilated the material well is secondary; what matters is how accurately the material is retained and faithfully reproduced in the examination under the given time restrictions.

Such a standardized system of examination doesn’t assess the actual learning. It primarily separates the learners in two categories: good test-takers and not-so-good test-takers. Since these exam results are the main criteria for college admissions, it only ends up creating fear and stress among students who feel they aren’t as smart as their peers capable of “scoring” well in the exams.

I suggest that the whole premise behind an external, standardized system of testing be questioned. It is based on a problematic notion that only an external body and not the actual teachers/ schools that were responsible for the education of the students can “test” the students “objectively”.

Over time, students and teachers generally develop a comfortable relationship, sharing concerns and problems, and offering helpful advice and suggestions. This human and humane aspect of teaching-learning experience can be effectively channelled for designing a meaningful assessment system. The “subjectivity” and “inter-relational” nature of educational experience should be seen as a strength in student assessment.

A flexibly designed “internal” school-based assessment system will allow more creativity in “testing” the student ability to assimilate, apply and express the learned material. Because each school will be responsible for only its own students, and each teacher will be responsible for only those students he/ she has been working with, assessment can be designed keeping in consideration a variety of learning styles. For example, students who are better at languages can be asked to write critical reviews or essays; those with greater analytical intelligence may be given research-based assignments or a series of thoughtfully-designed multiple-choice questions. Students more inclined toward hands-on-learning may be asked to design an application of some sort, while appropriate projects may be assigned to visual and auditory learners. As and when appropriate a combination of open-book and oral tests may also be used.

In addition to term-end examinations, formative assessments may be done regularly through small, impromptu quizzes and tests during the classroom instruction time. Extended projects that help students better assimilate the learned material and apply their innate creativity may be incorporated. Thoughtfully prepared rubric may be used to assess student participation in group discussions.

A combination of marks/ letter-grades and narrative feedback on student performance may be incorporated. The teacher should be asked to comment on the student’s ability to comprehend, analyse, synthesize, apply and express. This may be converted to a grading scheme (as determined by a school committee in charge of student assessment) for the preparation of a final mark-sheet which the student can submit with college admission application.

Could this be done in an average class of 45-50 students? Or by a teacher responsible for a much larger number of students enrolled in different sections of a class? It surely can. What is first required is intent to make the change.

The college admissions’ process also needs re-examining. Some colleges already use a system of entrance examination and student interview for admission to specific subject areas (in addition to the board examination results). This may be expanded further because it helps assess student capability more directly rather than relying solely on his/ her capacity to score well in a standardized test.

Much needs to be done to expand the availability of quality learning opportunities in higher education. The ridiculously high cut-off percentages must go away, and the pressure of college admissions must be eased for students and parents alike. This will also help get rid of the “back-door” admissions that inevitably happen in the present system.

Let us not push the young toward a mind-set that suggests that the way to succeed is to do better than their peers, which is what our present system of board examination indirectly encourages. Let us help them realize that the way to get ahead is by exceeding one’s own limits and recognizing one’s unique strengths and capabilities. Let us create an assessment system that motivates learners to do better, not better than others.

To be continued...

Beloo Mehra has a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics. She taught at Antioch University Midwest, Ohio, and is on the faculty of Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research at Pondicherry.