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An Opportunity for Change

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By Roli S
I saw it coming some twenty years ago when I used to make question papers for my students in schools. I saw it coming when I used to write report cards for my students. I saw it coming when I would tackle parents’ anxieties and questions during parent-teacher meetings and I saw it coming when I used to be discontented labeling, grading and assessing my students on the basis of three-hour-sit-down written exams and a one-hour-sit-down written Unit Test. I saw very clearly that, someday in India, well-meaning people, education specialists, teachers and even parents will collectively understand the value of a fair and all-inclusive assessment.

What I did not see coming though was that in my lifetime a pandemic would provide us with an opportunity for a change in the education system and, particularly, assessment patterns in India. I have always found it very discomforting as to how we can make or break a child’s future by just assessing his/her performance in a three-hour-sit-down written examination?

The cancellation of board exams in our schools this year has brought out this dark reality to the forefront. Imagine, without the three-hour-sit-down examination, a seventeen-year-old, who has been studying in schools for the last fifteen years or so, has nothing to prove his or her academic and intellectual or any other capability? Is it not something that we should all begin to understand earnestly?

The quality of assessment in schools has always remained right at the top on the list of concerns. What is interesting is that there is a lot that has been done in the area of ‘assessments’ in the last one decade. In an average quality school, many teachers will be familiar with various terms associated with assessments such as formative assessment, summative assessment, etc. Even I learnt about them when I attended various workshops and training conducted by experts and education boards, but due to lack of proper motivation and follow up, most of the formative assessment practices were not as effective as they should be, because all said and done there was this three-hour-sit-down examination that remained the most important assessment criterion and only and only on that depended the student’s future! So why bother about any other form of assessment?

But this pandemic and the cancellation of board examinations have brought to light the real problem that ails our schools – the true and effective assessment models.

I always felt as a teacher that my students who are smart in so many other ways were not feeling good about themselves just because they did not fare well in the three-hour-sit -down examinations. For teachers, it is the easiest thing to do. To give students marks and fill in the report card and make a few standard comments in the comment section. It is very hard, though, to collect evidence of learning over time and work with students to have them document their learning along the way. Give them guidelines or checkpoints to let them know what they need to work on and when they need to do so.

In my experience as a school reviewer, I have found that, on paper, there is much information and knowhow to improve assessments that exists with schools but, practically, very few teachers actually know how to use it. For example, most teachers are not told the difference between an anecdotal record and observation remarks. They do not know how to interpret them and how to make use of them in a way that benefits the child. Again, because most teachers in the schools focus only on the most important sit-down examinations, so in a classroom of forty students about thirty students end up feeling inadequate and incapable! It is downright inequitable and wrong. I am not talking about the privileged schools, because in these schools students anyway know that their future is secure. I am talking about the schools where children from middle class and lower middle-class households go to study. I am talking about the schools that are located in small towns and villages of our country and where much talent and potential of the nation studies. The teachers in these schools must be trained in assessment and data collection. They must be told that data is useless unless it is used! They must use the formative assessments about their students to provide timely feedback, adjust their instructions, and plan ahead. So that, at any given point in time, if they are asked to make a report card of their students, they will be able to make it doing justice to their talents and potential.

The summative assessments such as sit-down examinations will come and go but what really forms the future of a student is the continuous feedbacks and personalised instructions!

Assessments are a critical part of Learning and should be undertaken with the same level of care and rigour that teachers put into creating their learning content, because learners need endless feedback on their all-round performance more than endless teachings.

(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Thane)