Are we Measuring the Right Things in Education?

9 Sep

To bring about improvements in school education, we need to first know the goals and targets that need to be addressed. That’s yet to happen

We do bemoan the state of education in India, and of course a lot needs to be done to bring millions to literacy and numeracy. A lot more needs to be done to bring education to the literate argumentative Indian — but that is a discussion for another day. Even the schools and colleges that are supposed to instruct their wards in standardised curricula may only be working towards partial instruction. Because of what we measure.

We measure our success in education by the results students achieve. Other measures that explore the system in depth include the District Information System for Education data provided via the National University of Educational Planning and Administration to the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development. The Annual Status of Education Report explores student achievement in depth, as do the Wipro studies assess on more holistic criteria. Much progress has been made in these assessments of education systems in the past two years, with J-PAL setting up monitoring systems for helping education officers manage their areas better by changing the way they assess their zones by moving to a more collaborative and supportive approach.

It was interesting to realise that India allowed one pilot-run of the Programme for International Student Assessment test, did not do well in that at all (ranking almost at the bottom of the global table) and then disallowed the test in subsequent years. The test was not suited to our education system and did not test the things that our students were prepared to answer. The students had been brought up in a system of rote learning and were unable to navigate their way through questions that expected them to think, or at the very least re-arrange the facts. This hole in our education system is now being plugged with the very adventurous Problem Solving Assessments that supplement the new continuous evaluations introduced in schools all over the country. The PSA actually expects students to think and solve problems rather than replicate responses in standardised methods.

The emphasis here is on the process rather than on the results, though of course the rewards are for results achieved. Traditionalists (read, teachers and parents schooled in the old system) are protesting, outraged about the fact that the students now will have to enter uncontrollable spaces — such as thinking, analysing and processing for results. There are fewer guarantees of ‘marks’ since the process is now out of the parental supervision space. This, and the watered down version of the open book examinations are tentative steps towards moving away from rote learning by changing what is assessed. These are positive steps, too mild to have much impact soon, but as they gain support and confidence will bring a fundamental shift in the learning process within the classroom.

Even at a systemic level, institutions are being assessed holistically. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act looks at playgrounds, libraries and classroom spaces. The quality of teaching and learning is an area that needs more work — mere input criteria are inadequate. Even the  Indian Institutes of Technology are now being assessed on a more holistic basis — on internationalisation, on the contributions to research, on the transparency of governance structures, on facilities and teaching and diversity and gender equity among other things.

This is progress indeed, and will help the institutions improve. But does it ask the right questions? It depends upon the goals. And the goals must depend upon the needs of the stakeholders. Who decides the goals?

If the goal of the IITs is to climb up the league tables, then the set of criteria identified to assess them is perfect — it directly speaks to the criteria of the major league tables of the world, and will help the IITs restore their lustre. On the other hand, if the goals of the IITs were to rejuvenate the manufacturing sector in the nation, or to help the nation become a hub for applied research, then these might not be the only questions to ask — and hold the institutions accountable. Similarly with schools — do we know the goals and targets that we need to improve?



This was first published in the Daily Pioneer on September 5, 2013 and is linked here and


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