Friday, 13 June 2014

Can effective Education be imparted without effective Assessment and Testing?

Paper and Pen
The idea of doing away with testing, the removal of a single Board exam at the grade tenth level,  the idea of tests as being more harmful than good, are all highly debated topics today!  Educationists, policy makers, bureaucrats, and even parents will never reach a consensus on this matter! A fine line exists, however ,between testing that is relevant and testing that is irrelevant! In an earlier article written by my, I had talked about how, despite all of this brouhaha about doing away with testing (in view of its being stressful and harmful),  our children today  are madly obsessed with  tests of all kinds! Many of them are going for  tests that their forefathers had never even heard of (talk about SAT, GMAT, CLAT, NET, TET, and so on)! The Adults too undergo various kinds of  psychometric tests in-service which include, Calliper, the Mills Briggs Test, and so on. So why  then, are we so obsessed about tests in an age that professes to be totally anti - testing? Is it not so ironical that today, we have done away with the single test per subject that we had at the tenth boards and have instead opted for a continuous battery of tests in the form of the Continuous Comprehensive Assessments from grade eight to grade ten? Isn’t the replacement of the single annual exam with continuous testing an affirmation that we can’t do without tests today? Surely, we are living in a highly complicated and paradoxical society today – if not so,  then why are we into so much  double talk about the importance and relevance of testing?
My argument is not about doing away with testing, rather, it is about the importance of testing; testing that is relevant, efficient and valid. It is about having fewer tests which are less stressful than a large number of tests that have little or no validity at all! I would like to support my claim by putting before the reader a few questions: 1. Would you like to go under the scalpel of a surgeon who has never been through tests? 2.Would you like to sit in a car driven by your son,who has never been tested before getting his licence, on a busy highway? 3.Would you fly in an airliner that is being flown by a pilot who has never had any kind of a test? 4.Would you send your children to a school which has teachers who have never sat or even passed their tests to get their licence to teach? The answer to all the questions would invariably be a very emphatic, ‘No.’ – Filial attachments aside!
In our desire to make a point and then just stick to it rather fastidiously, we have forgotten that tests have always been part of our lives, albeit tests that have had great relevance and validity. These tests have measured  a good deal what they set out to do. If Eklavia gave away his thumb to Guru Dronacharya as Guru Dakshina or a token fee to the teacher, then perhaps it might have been to prove his dedication towards his teacher and  resolve towards  his mission in life. The same might be said about the forty days of intense fasting and self denial that Christ had to undergo in the desert. It was a self assessment that Jesus Christ underwent to prove that he could resist temptation. If Gautama Buddha could sit in self denial under a tree before attaining Moksha, then wasn’t this period of self denial a test that he had to pass before achieving Moksha or release from the shackles of materialism? What about the reasons behind evolution? Don’t we evolve according to necessities and circumstances, thus building up on those qualities (and organs) that help us survive better in this world and toning down on those that are not required? Thus, the appendage that we call the appendix, which we have inside our abdomens failed the test and so has no role to play in our existence except perhaps to cause discomfort when it becomes inflamed!
In our haste for doing away with a standardized board exam at the grade ten level we have unfortunately introduced a slew of tests and activities in the form of formative assessments across schools. Most of these formative assessments fail miserably in testing what they claim to have been designed for! Take for example, a group activity, a power point presentation, or for that effect a chart on  environmental protection in which students are divided into groups of five. What happens is that not all of the students contribute equally to the project. It will be noticed that one student will always lead and contribute the most! The marks that the group gets will be based almost entirely on the efforts of this one, committed and hardworking student, unless of course the test comes with a rubric containing a criteria on differential testing, a criteria that takes into consideration the amount of work put in by each of the five members of the group! Looking at the very subjectivity of the activity and the flaws it is bound to have, it would be very difficult to standardize the activity for use across schools all over the country. Different teachers will always give different marks to the same group for the same activity. So then, what is the solution? Well, I guess the most important step would be to identify the different skills that are  to be assessed. The next most important step would be to prepare a standardized rubric that would assess different skills on a five point scale. The reason why I suggest a five point scale is that having a larger scale might detract or confuse the assessor. Each scale should have the markers or identifying evidences of skills clearly mentioned. It is only after  the  preparation of a standardized rubric that one can plan for the next  important phase which is about orienting the students about the objectives of the activity, and the rubric.
If we claim that we can’t do without good quality testing,  or for that effect any testing at all then probably, the  very purpose of this article is lost! But then if we do plan to test our students in some way or the other to check how much they have grasped, and to know how well we have taught them, then we  need, also to ensure that all the tests are standardized, and scientifically and statistically  proven  to be effective. To claim that the teaching – learning process  has nothing to do with testing is to suggest that setting out on a marathon on one leg, that too without any supporting prop! Learning is a continuous process of listening, seeing, doing, and assessing. The quantum of learning - a rather subjective quantity has to be measured and somehow converted into a more subjective  magical number. It is this magical number that matters most to all those learners and teachers alike, who really want to do well in life! It is the marks or grades that students achieve which in the end determine how effective the teaching and learning process has been! Somehow, the clichéd phrase, ‘There is no gain without pain’ rings true as far the matter of assessments is concerned. The pain of failing a test, or for that effect, the fear of scoring less marks in a test, might, for many, be the best inducement or motivation for doing better next time! Tests that are effective and standardized are perhaps the only instruments that  can provide a tangible feedback to both the students and their teachers!
If then, you would be happy enough to be piloted by someone who has never been tested or maybe even operated on by a surgeon who never been tested, then what would differentiate the writer from the surgeon, or the reader from the pilot of an airliner? The roads are already full of idiots who have no road sense, they cut across you with élan, press on the horn with the hope perhaps that they could zap all that obstructing traffic with their sound guns. How much more crazy would the situation become on the roads if everyone was given a licence to drive, that too without having had to undergo a driving test? If everyone could become surgeons and fly planes, then surely the whole world would degenerate into a state of chaos. I guess tests are here to stay, if we are to maintain good order and discipline in the society.
Fables, fairy tales, folk tales, and folk epics have often described  tests in the form of  ordeals, the solving of riddles, and trials that the protagonist has had to undergo in order to achieve success.Our very culture has dealt with tests and assessments since time,immemorial  and perhaps some of the most ingenuous tests can be found in our Ancient folk tales. In the Fairy Tale, The Princess on the Pea, the old Queen was able to identify the real Princess by putting her to the ingenuous test of making her sleep on a bed which had a pea on the bottom mattress. The Princess did not have a comfortable sleep because she could feel the pea that was so many mattresses below! Another fairy tale that presents us with a test of love is  Beauty and the Beast. In this story, it is when the tears from the girl fall on to the Beast’s face that the transformation takes place. The moral, beauty is not  about the beauty of the skin rather it is about  what you are inside, a true love is not about being obsessed with  skin deep beauty rather it is about loving the beauty of the soul! In the fable about King Arthur, the very extraction of the sword, Excalibur was a test of strength which only King Arthur could manage to draw out of the rock that held it. If the test had not been so difficult, who knows what would have happened if a person other than King Arthur had managed to extract the sword! Take for example the story about the Intricate knot that King Gordius  of Phrygia had tied (Gordian Knot) that Alexander cut Legend had it that whoever untied the knot would rule the whole of Asia! Well what if Alexander split the knot apart with his sword, did it not speak of a better understanding of the situation? The cutting of the Gordian knot should be seen as a metaphor for learning and the ability to make a quick decision. Let us say that the problem of the Gordian Knot was meant to test the decisiveness of the candidate, this would include abilities in problem solving, and the ability to think out of the box! What would have happened if the Gordian knot had been so easy to untie, perhaps, a lesser, less capable person would have been sitting on the throne of Phrygia! It is amazing how those people were doing all sorts of testing  those many years ago! Paper and pen tests are a form of testing, the indoor equivalent of the elaborate tests of ancient times!
It is clear from all the above examples that the acid test of purity is a requirement that cannot be done away with at any time in life. We, as living human beings are constantly being tested in real life situations. it could be a situation requiring problem solving skills, or it could be about memorizing landmarks in order to find our way to a friend’s house in a new city.  We are all tested in times of sorrow and times of suffering, we are tested in times of danger and times of fear, we are tested when we are in a state of turmoil and a state of weariness. Temptation, indifference, and incarceration are all testing times. How we respond to them depends on the life-skills we have imbibed in life, whether at school or the world out there! Life is one big lesson, and the iniquities that we face are the tests that we need to face from time to time. The tests we face in life are like the cleansing  or purifying fire which will bring out the purity that exists within us.To stop responding to tests means the end of learning, and the end of learning mean death, for all human being learn till their last moments! To stop testing students in schools is the end of education, for the moment we take away the chance for evaluation then we are teaching our children to grope blindly even when they have eyes to see and it is still daylight!
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