Sunday, April 20, 2014

Current understanding on Assessment

It is surprising to know that, in the months of March-April, around 2.2 million students appeared for their X and XII public exams (and this is only the CBSE boards without including the State boards), making the Indian Examination system the largest of its kind anywhere in the world.

With such a staggering amount of population appearing for exams, it is necessary for us to look at ‘standard’ of such tests being conducted and henceforth its necessity and utility. Particularly I like to share my current understanding on the assessment, which was inspired by article I read an article on recently conducted Finnish Matriculation by Pasi Sahlberg.
At the premise, I want to question myself whether raising assessment standards can increase education excellence; and it is not as simple as setting tough question papers. And at the same time, I would like to declare that it doesn’t mean assessment standards are panacea for our bad education system. And at the same time, as mentioned in the Sahlberg’s article (which I highly recommend to read before continuing), we may have to be conscious of how this assessment is used, on teacher-designed assessments in the younger classes, one-time nation-wide assessment only when the children attain the age of 14 and be mindful that I am not supporting a mindless aristocratic system which rather than being progressive in nature, reduces the trust on the teachers.
Given this common understanding, I like to put forth the evidences I particularly happen to witness in coming to such a judgment. However ill-informed or misunderstood I might be, I want this article to challenge the existing reforms in the Education sphere and invite more such constructive discussion on the same.
Ø  We are recently witnessing a visible decline in the quality of Engineering graduates in Tamil Nadu. Though a variety of reasons could be cited, experience faculty and trainers seem to site the cancellation of TNPCEE (Tamil Nadu Professional College Entrance Exams) in the year 2005. I personally took coaching classes on the same and remember it testing the conceptual understanding of the students rather than on rote learning usually being done in the regular public exams.
Ø  Visible difference in the high standard of Engineers, Doctors coming out of IIT/ Medical colleges because of the high standard of assessment set in the entrance exams like IIT-JEE, All India Entrance Exams, etc. Again a high standard of assessment ensuring quality intake into the colleges and henceforth better graduates
Ø  Recent trend in UPSC exams introducing high standard aptitude test, C-SAT (Civil Services Aptitude Test) to ensure quality placement, besides the knowledge-based assessments
Ø  Another example are the list of qualifying exams like IIM-CAT exams, GMAT, TOEFL, IELTS which on a scale tests the quality of intakes
Ø  Plethora of placement tests conducted for recruiting graduates (again testing aptitude and thinking skills) into the industry
Ø  We do have specialized tests and assessment like entrance test for B.Arch and test at National Institute of Design – are all assessments at different level to recruit specific type of candidates that the course demands
Here we should be mindful that assessment is not just quantitative or written measures; we may have to bring back our forgotten tradition of conducting oral assessment (one of the best and only way to assess students’ language and communication skills), literally like interviews for children.
What is the standard of assessment?
Quoting from the book, Driven by Data by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, listed here are series of questions basically trying to test the students’ understanding on percentages.
  1. What is 50% of 20?
  2. What is 67% of 81?
  3. Shawn got 7 correct answers on his science test out of ten possible. What percentage of questions did he answer correctly?
  4. J.J.Redick was on pace to set a college basketball record in career free throw percentage. Going into the NCAA tournament in 2004, he had made 97 of 104 free throw attempts. What percentage of free throws had he made?
And the list goes on to 6 different types of questions. As it is clear, the assessment has the power to test however aptly the conceptual understanding of the students on the topic. Elsewhere I have written an article on Assessment in Constructive teaching taking inspiration from Mr.Rajendran’sbook Inikkum Kanakku.
Analysing the above questions will help us understand the current problems in our own system. We, in India, are always citing the lack of conceptual and practical application in our Mathematical education. I suppose level 3 and 4 questions tries to address that issue and at the same time challenges the formula-substitution method of Maths instruction insider our classroom. Such varying degrees of assessments are called ‘Scaffolded assessments’ denoting the increasing level of complexity it requires to solve the questions.
What increasing assessment standards can do?
Immediately, increasing the standard of assessments challenges the teachers to increase their level of instruction to address the conceptual understanding (like in Question 4) rather than to be satisfied with procedural instructions (like in Question 1 or 2). No, I am not suggesting that this alone will do, but this is a good place to start.
At the same time, questions on how such increase in standards can be achieved in a subject like English. I found answer in the Maharashtra State Board’s English exam question paper and the Finnish English Matriculation exam. Here English is tested on a different level rather than asking the students to reproduce a memorized lines of Shakespeare or re-narrate an episode from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Here English is tested at comprehension level and critically on the students’ understanding of the given text. Also, certain companies like Educational Initiatives, Science Olympiad Foundation, etc are bringing about novel initiatives in raising the assessment standards like producing high quality test materials like ASSET, National Math/ Science Olympiad.
Issues to handle
At the same time, we too end up in falling into the trap of teaching for the test or coaching for the exams happens. But I am wondering, if we could somehow navigate the issue some other way.
We should remember that assessment is everywhere. You will not be allowed to drive your car, if you are not ‘tested’ for your driving skills or one doesn’t want to sit in a plane without a licensed pilot. While these assessments are test of skills, can we also recommend using assessment only as a test of skill and knowledge in our education too? The question still lingers.    

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