Examination reforms in India needs careful planning

Changes in the examination system proposed by the HRD Minister Mr Kapil Sibal, are commendable. There is a body of research and studies conducted by eminent Indian educationists behind this move, which have been repeatedly mentioned in various education committees formed to reform and revitalise the Indian education system. The minister also has the unequivocal support of the National Curriculum Framework – 2005, a more current reform document.

My ex-students, who are products of Indian system of education sans reforms, and who are pursuing higher education overseas find themselves disadvantaged in a number of ways; a majority of which are linked to the assessment practices that schools in India follow. The head of training and recruitment, at one of India’s largest software companies, laments “19 out of 20 graduate applicants and 6 out of 7 post-graduate applicants are unemployable”.

Before implementing the internal assessment/ exam option for grade 10, I would like to remind Mr Sibal of two factors that can determine the success or failure of his examination reforms.

Firstly, schools/teachers might end up replacing one form of evaluation (external, standardised examination) with another (internal, standardised examination) since most schools and teachers in India do not understand the difference between assessment and evaluation, in form and content. Tests and examinations are tools of evaluation. As far as assessment goes, the best, and sometimes the only assessment strategy, that schools/teachers practice is project work. This in its Indian school format and design is, usually a sham of an assessment! Students get irrelevant and largely unfamiliar issues to research, without having been taught research skills, they regurgitate that information, a skill largely redundant in this age of information explosion. The learning outcomes are blurred and assessment criteria are undisclosed and arbitrary. Basic principles of any sound assessment (not evaluation) task are reliability, diversity, fairness and equity. How many Indian schools/ teachers can claim to design authentic assessment tasks that measure well on these criteria? There are a number of organisations, like Art of Learning, that train teachers, within and outside the classrooms, in understanding assessment of learning, as learning and for learning.

Secondly, the question of assessment cannot be considered in isolation. In 1998, Wiggins and McTighe proposed the “Backward by Design” as a curriculum model, where teachers and curriculum developers begin with the end in mind (assessment) and plan backwards (teaching-learning experiences for students). If Indian schools are to adopt internal assessment (as opposed to external evaluation) in Grade 10, they will have to alter the design of teaching and learning in the classroom. Teachers are accustomed to teaching to a test and use the drill and kill approach, which yields good results in standardised tests. If teachers are expected to teach towards meaningful and authentic, formative and summative assessment, they would be required to significantly alter their teaching-learning practices. It also necessitate teacher exposure and training to use different strategies targeting different learning outcomes, the success of which, in terms of students’ learning will be assessed by diverse and authentic assessment practices to give a more holistic and reliable picture of a students’ learning.

If these considerations are not addressed while implementing and as part of a holistic model for reforms to the grade 10 examination system, it would merely be a case of old wine in new bottles!