5 Ways to Make Exams Smarter

20 Aug

The drumroll to university admissions has reached it’s peak — we now applaud the winners — the few that got into a good university and silently mourn those who squeezed the last inch of effort in memorizing content but just lost out. We may even silently commend those who showed some chutzpah and did not bother to compete at the finely sliced edge colloquially called the ‘cut-offs’.

Grade inflation! They shout. These are marks, not education, say others. Exams must change, but no, don’t change them to anything different or we will lose all objectivity and be accused of skewing results, of cheating. It is a fundamental flaw. It is a lack of capacity. We need more and better colleges. If we do not do something to fix higher education in India we will continue to lose dollars and talent to other countries.

All of this is true.

It is also true that the youth are smarter and better prepared. The exams have remained static and they have moved on, ready with a clear understanding of what is required and how to get it. They are drilled in content and in exam taking techniques. Obviously they do well. There is only so much to memorize and practice — and as one head teacher said confidentially — it only takes 3 months to really teach this. The rest of the time in the school year is supposed to be allocated to exploring the subject in detail, in gaining an education, in sports, in music and in ethics and citizenship. It is entirely up to the school to spend this time in a range of activities or in drilling their students in preparing for the exam. We know which brings the school and the student more acclaim.

The stark truth is that students are often smarter than their teachers. Their youth and inexperience does need teachers to play a strong role in character building, and indeed in keeping them focused on their goals. But many can outdo their teachers, and do that often. The role of the teacher and the student has changed — it is no longer the power-play it used to be. If we have acknowledged that in progressive classrooms, why can we not give in and accept the same truth for the assessment system? The assessment system is not broken, but it is predictably beatable. And beaten it is, year on year by those who are familiar with it. Exams just cannot keep up, they have not even tried.

All that examinations do is to exert their power over people’s lives by decreeing them worthy or not by a sliver. For something that is beaten year after year by successive batches of students this power is inexplicable. Those of us who seek safety in tradition are unable to resist its pull. So much so that in their thrall ordinary people are scared enough to fund scams like Vyapam. Vyapam comes from the power we give examinations — and a deeper rooted evil — fear and greed.

And so, talk show after talk show, op-ed after op-ed, and indeed this blog, we whine on about it. Can we fix it? Sure we can. How?

Change the entry criteria to higher education – let there be more than a single point of success or failure. Create diverse and diversified points of entry and entry qualifications, not just the holy grail of marks.

Design entrance exams for differentiation, design standard exams as baselines to higher education.

Design exams to be un-gameable. Smart people need smarter exams. Design dynamic examination systems — remain one step ahead of the curve. After all you are assessing for the future.

Let examinations test for skills rather than mere knowledge. (Do not allow exams to spill over into testing attitudes, ethics or values — no reductionist tool can do this successfully at scale.)

Design for scale and access.

Let there be exam points at various monitored digital learning centres where any student can take the examinations as many times as they deem necessary, and in any order. If soap can reach every village, so can smart exams. Is this easy? Yes. Is this possible? Yes. Is this going to take hard work? Yes. Will it make things better fairly soon? Yes. Do we have the resources and talent to make this happen? Yes. Are there other things that need to be done too? Yes of course, many. Such as relying less on credentials and qualifications and more on competence (competence based assessment matrices), building choice and flexibility in selection procedures (and within Higher Education), and, bringing professionalism and rigour via higher investment in system design. But that will take longer. The five above are easier.


Smart exams – the way to break through the grade inflation/admissions logjam

July 14, 2015, 3:35 pm IST in EduCable | India | TOI

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