Monday, 20 May 2013

To Test or not to Test, that is the greatest Test!

When the authorities in India  passed the rule that no one would be detained from class nursery to class eight, it was welcomed by parents with praises and the choicest bouquets of appreciation. The idea behind this rather noble rule was that it would help reduce the incidence of drop out of learners due to poor performance in exams. A few other noble minded humanitarians decided to play god and wanted to trash that harsh law of, “Survival of the fittest!”. It seems as if Darwin and his findings at the Galapagos islands were after all null and void, that is, at least with reference to human beings! These noble minded souls decided that the stress of having to prepare for tests and exams was not worth the effort, and that children should not be subjected to the stress of testing. Today many parents believe that there should be a system of testing to decide whether or not a student is promoted to the next class. In a country which is witness to the great gap in the educational standard that exists between students that go to public schools and those that go to Government schools especially in rural areas, we need to do a serious re-think about our policies of testing our students and promoting them. Students going to public schools in India have better English Language skills than their counterparts who go to Government schools. Another challenge before educationists in India is that a large number of students who go to Government Schools and even Government Aided schools are first Generation learners. The result is that that students who study in Public Schools might go to the next class with some numerical and language skills, while their counterparts in Government schools are promoted even if they don’t have the required numerical or language skills for that class or grade! The challenge before the authorities at the time when the no fail policy was introduced was that the drop out rate in most Government and Government aided schools was so great. This was aggravated by the system of detaining students who couldn’t pass the paper and pen tests. Today, this policy has resulted in deteriorating academic standards in students today. Recent surveys conducted by Governmental and Non-Governmental Organisations have shown a disturbing trend, worse than before that a very small percentage of students  who go to the next class have the required numerical and language skills expected in students of that class or grade!
The result of the policy of promoting all students till class eight is that according to numerous surveys, a miniscule percentage of students till class eight have average numerical skills, and fewer still have the ability to write a sentence in English without grammatical errors. Now educationists have started talking about building, “exam skills” in students from class eight onwards! Apparently, the question whether to test or not to test is the greatest debate in numerous educational discussions world wide. While some debate that formal paper and pen tests are the best indicators of how much the students have learned, while others claim that there are other better methods of assessing learning outcomes in students. When asked what they might be, they start of with a list which include observations by teachers (which are bound to be subjective), check lists, class activities, role playing,group activities which include organising fairs, events…etc. The list of assessments is exhaustive and of course it appears as if the students are constantly under observation, poor kids, and in place of periodic  paper and pen tests, each day is for observation observation and observation: enter the Formative assessments, and the system of  Continuous Comprehensive Assessment which would include Scholastic and Co-Scholastic evaluation. The Jargon introduced by the powers that be is interesting enough! If the teacher is confused, then imagine how much more confused the student is with the endless number of tools that he or she has to keep track of for each subject. This has certainly added stress not only for students, but in fact it has added to the stress of the parents. It is clear, moreover that the system of Comprehensive Assessment has attempted to asses all kinds of skills in students, except for their examination skills! The result? Well, an aversion for reading passages longer than three to four hundred words, and the inability to write long answers. Students today are more pleased with multiple choice  questions which require tick marks,  or shading of choices. Whither to then, examination skills?
By the time students reach class twelve, they are a confused lot because all of a sudden they are required to writes long answers for the English subject which exceed the hundred words limit. The answer to the two question on the novels recently introduced would be 130 words for character based questions and 150 word answers for questions based on the plot! All of a sudden, the student is expected to write letters, reports, articles, notices, invitations, and so on! Class eleventh, unfortunately is too short of a transition period for students to realign themselves to the objectives of the paper and pen tests. The confusion in most students of class eleventh is evident in their blank expressions when you ask them to write a longer letter, or to draw a character sketch of an important character in proper paragraphs and not just bullet points or value points!
A strong distinction however needs to be made between testing for earning a certificate of having passed grade twelve and testing for merit in entrance exams. While testing for awarding a certificate for grade twelve should be based on in depth knowledge, testing for entrance to professional coursed should be based on extensive knowledge. So then, to understand the whole question of testing, it is important to understand what it is that we are testing. The word, “Comprehensive” definitive enough and when used in association with evaluation till grade ten, then it suggests evaluating nearly all aspects of the syllabus or curriculum. Extensive evaluation however would increase the area of knowledge to be assessed, not just limiting it to what is contained in the text book and syllabus, but rather going beyond it; it is all about testing beyond the textbook, testing the candidates extensive reading skills and knowledge beyond the four walls of the class room.
It is clear, therefore that testing in some form or the other is here to stay. You don’t get selected for a particular graduate or professional course without going through the rigours of written entrance tests. Tests in some form or the others are served to students and professionals at all levels. Test scores are often an important form of feedback which tell the candidate where he or she stands, how much more effort he or she needs to put in. Testing in some form or the other has always been an important part of human life. In ancient times, epic heroes had to undergo a series of tests and trials. The odyssey was an epic journey traditionally describing the eventful epic journey of Odysseus. No doubt, not everyone can have the tremendous skills of an Odysseus, nor his resourcefulness,  but then if we go by what we have learned since ancient times, then life is one long journey, an journey of tests, and trails and to succeed in life then we need to pass these trials.
Today when we go to a Doctor because of some ailment, then we go with the faith that he is a professional who can be trusted because of the rigorous tests that he has passed and of course the tests would have included the entrance test that he or she would have passed and the tests that he or she would have passed at the end of each semester. No one would go to a Doctor who has not passed any tests, such a person could give us the wrong medication. Similarly, no body would like to  board a plane that has been designed by a designer who has never passed his tests, who knows there might be a serious flaw in the design that might cause the plane to crash! Thus we have serious entrance tests like JEE, PMT, CAT,MAT,AIEEE…etc. So then if we believe in such extensive exams after grade twelve, then it is either because we don’t trust all students who graduate from school to be fit for direct admission to the Engineering Course or perhaps even Medicine! If this then is the case, then this article is a plea that students studying in schools should be subjected to a battery of tests and their exam skills should be polished. Similarly, the “No Fail Policy” needs a serious rethink by the policy makers lest our standards drop further, no wonder, our B Schools and Institutes of Technology don’t figure in the list of the top two hundred institutes worldwide. We did have an edge in numerical skills throughout the world, but then the no fail policy till class eight is bound to have had its impact on our future professionals who have been recipients of the no fail policy!

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