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Board exams can't always work: Find better ways to assess students

By Richa Sharma Agnihotri,

We do not trust the grades students get in schools. So, we rely on external exams.

While class 10 CBSE exams have been cancelled, class 12 exams are likely to start from July. Image: PTI

In the wake of the pandemic, the government has decided to cancel the Class 10 examination and postpone the Class 12 examination conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). In the run-up to the decision, the questions most frequently asked included: Should we hold exams or not? Will colleges be comfortable accepting grades without the formal exam? But the question that needs to be asked is this: How can an externally-administered, end-of-year board exam be the only way to obtain an authentic and valid assessment of a child’s abilities?

In my almost three-decade-long career, I have come across many students who did not make the 95%-above mark and were considered “unworthy”. Maybe they did not make it to the top colleges but are doing very well for themselves, despite scoring 80% or 60%. Board exams, clearly, end up categorising those who have great skills in pen-and-paper tests as successful and the others as not.

It is sad and ironic that the assessment carried out by the school where the child has spent 12-14 years is less authentic/or of no consequence. Our internal assessment systems are not robust enough to give authentic and valid data on student achievements, which is why we cannot trust the grades we get in schools, and instead rely on the external exam.

The answer also cannot lie in aping other international boards — they cater to either a tiny population, or a less varied social and cultural group.

Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) — a grade-based framework mandated by the right to education and then scrapped in 2017 — gave a glimmer of hope. A progressive idea, if did not stand the test of time perhaps because it focused more on reporting rather than assessing. More importantly, it continued to believe in a one-size-fits-all system.

Only if we look at skills that are required in the workplace, and skills that make us more sensitive and participative global citizens, can we review and improve our assessment system, because only then will we give opportunities to develop these in the classroom. These include information literacy, digital and media literacy, collaboration, communication, research, data analysis, critical thinking, problem solving, among others. The traditional assessment system has not been able to develop these skills and cannot do so. Better teachers might still try and give opportunities in the classroom but constraints of time and of syllabus eventually lead them to encourage memorising and learning meaningless, outdated facts.

Here, then, is what needs to change.

First, recognise India is diverse. Every individual comes from a different set of cultural and social norms, has different abilities and talents, and cannot and should not be assessed in one way. Assessments will have to include elements of research, personal perspectives, and opportunities for displaying creativity/innovation. Children should also be allowed to show work that has been developed when given the opportunity to work at their own pace, with little constraints on time.

Educating a child entails preparing the child for a life beyond school. Only when these skills are clearly listed and articulated will they become a part of the content and the pedagogical processes, and only then will schools give opportunities to develop these. Assessment will then have a clearly defined purpose, to evaluate whether the planned learning outcomes have been achieved, and to what extent.

We will therefore have to develop assessments in school, often also called internal assessments. This will have to include student work through the year, be it a research piece in science, a critical appreciation of a book the child has read in languages, or an essay on contemporary issues in humanities, identified by the child. This will not only give an opportunity to the child to take time on a project but also allow her to form and express opinions. It will also allow for diversity – because contemporary issues vary from region to region, from floods in Bengal to cyclones in Odisha to pollution in Delhi to migration in the Northeast.

Second, assessments will have to allow students flexibility in presenting their ideas via any medium, a movie or a monologue, in the written form or a painting. Languages will need to be assessed in not just all four skills — reading, writing, speaking and listening — but also in presenting ideas, comprehending what has been read or heard, discerning between real and fake facts, and in appreciating good forms of expressions, whether in the written form or spoken or in reel. We will also have to move from the idea of teaching a text to teaching the skill to appreciate and comprehend language in all its forms.

Students will have to be given opportunities for collecting, processing and interpreting data and ideas. They will have to learn to wade through all sorts of information and choose the most appropriate resource. Each subject area will have to identify important attitudes and skills that need to be developed and provide opportunities within the classroom and subject area to develop and assess these skills. If we are able to achieve this, we will be armed with enough information about the student to be able to comment with confidence on skills and abilities. We will also give ample and diverse kinds of opportunities for every individual to demonstrate knowledge, understanding and abilities. Increasing the weightage of internal assessment grades in calculating the final grade is the way forward. The problem of standardisation can be easily met by using percentiles and not absolute scores.

This might sound utopian and impractical. But we are already developing many skills and assessing these as we go along, informally. Both CBSE and NCERT have been progressively pointing in this direction. Every good teacher knows the value of a class discussion, of customised assessments and assessing varied skills. Every Holiday homework, which encourages research and interpretation, is assessing skills of data interpretation and information literacy. Every assessment of speaking and listening skills, which asks for personal ideas, and every book cover that children design, assesses creativity. We now need to formalise these, train teachers, create exemplar schools who walk the talk and support others. We also need to show honesty in our internal assessments and trust and belief in our systems.

(Richa Sharma Agnihotri is the Principal of Sanskriti School, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal)

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