Sunday, 23 August 2015

Are Written Annual Board Exams Good or Bad?

A familiar grouse amongst students and parents alike is that you can’t assess what a student has learned throughout the whole year in a three hour written examination! What if the student fell ill, or was in a bad state of mind, wouldn’t this affect the student’s performance in the written exam? For others, the very idea of a written examination is effete, obsolete and outdated in times when word-processing is the norm! Come on, we are talking about building up 21st century skills, so how does a written board exam fit into the scheme of things? “Sir, can’t you send us these observations by e-mail, this is too much of writing, we are tired!”- all for half to one page of written matter!
But then, let us pause and review the things that went on well and things that went on not so well since the CBSE brought in drastic and radical changes overnight in the system of education from grade one to grade ten, six years of confusion, eye-wash and a drastic deterioration of the academic standards of students and teachers! First and foremost, the “no fail policy”- much appreciated initially by parents who spoke about the stress of preparing for term papers, today a large number of parents advocate written exams and stricter norms regarding promotion of wards to the next class. Today, statistical research has shown that very few  of the students at the elementary level have  grade-specific skills in languages, both Hindi and English, and basic Mathematics. These students are presently passed on, or promoted to the next grade under the ‘no fail’ increasing the learning gaps with each year that passes!
The introduction of the Comprehensive Continuous Evaluation brought a sigh of relief to teachers and students and parents alike. Teachers were happy that they would not have to prepare regular term papers and check them, students were happy that they would not have to study hard for regular term papers, and parents were relieved that they would not have to pay exorbitant amounts to the neighbourhood aunty who gave  tuitions in all subjects from grade one to grade ten! A few years into CCE, however exposed the fallacy of such wishful thinking, for under the CCE, teachers had to prepare regular assessments under the system of “Formative Assessments” which included group activities, projects, and near about any kind of assessment that would help trace the “Formative Cognitive Growth” of the   learner. Students who had to prepare on regular intervals for term papers now had to prepare continuously without break. Parents who bothered about looking into the notebooks of their children just a few days before exams now now had to on their feet, running to the market to buy models and projects before the impossible deadline given by the teachers.    The immense scope and possibilities under CCE assessment strategies meant that teachers began devising their own activities, some of which so outrageously impractical since they were not backed up by a robust rubric. Some of the projects/activities were so ambitious that they ended up leaving the students and teachers confused about what they were being tested on, or what they were really testing. The end result of the CCE was that there were no standardised testing procedures. Also, the group activities did not cater to differential learning, thus a group presentation would depend on the probably the leader of the group who would do all the work, research, and drafting the presentation, while the other members would simply stand in a group while their leaded made the presentation. Thus if the teacher gave a perfect ten on ten, then it should have been more about awarding the single leader of the group who did all the work than the rest of the group members, literally hangers on. What happens in reality is that the perfect ten on ten is given to all the members of the group irrespective of the amount of work they might have put in – something that questions the very validity of the activity!
The next favoured assessment tool under CCE is the project. Topics are given to students and then they are told to prepare a written essay on the topic. Students then enter key words on the Google search bar, and lo and behold, the magic of the internet is that it spews out a plethora of websites on the topics chosen by the student. A few students might cite sources but most don’t even know about plagiarism. Matter is word processed, a few pleasing sketches are made on the cover pages,  and then the neatly spiral bound booklet is presented with a flourish to the teacher. The teacher is impressed by the presentation and the promptness of the student in presenting the project well in time and he gives the student a ten on ten! The same goes for models. Topic is given, the student then talks to the neighbourhood aunty who can prepare any model or a project paper for a reasonable amount of money. The topic is given to her and then after a few days, a gleaming colourful model is done, all ready to be presented to the teacher. The teacher looks at the model, gets impressed by the quality of workmanship, and awards the student a ten on ten!
Things become bad when the student “passes high school” that is grade ten with a ten CGPA and then seeks admission in another school, or then decides to get into one of the more popular streams, that is Science stream with Engineering based subjects, including Maths, Physics and Chemistry. The principal of a Govt. Aided school in Roop Nagar where I once served, lamented that even students with a 10 CGPA who came from other schools for admission in the science stream at the grade eleventh level failed to clear the exams and thus had to be either detained at the grade eleven level or worse had to seek admission somewhere else. These were by all means students who had been through the rigours of the Continuous Assessment System which had made the process of learning a cake-walk, the students had plagiarised liberally from the net, gotten models made from a shop and had ended up with a 10 CGPA! Ironically enough, a 10 CGPA is not a valid indicator of student learning, capability or even ability to take up a particular stream! Probably the only good thing about CCE or CCA is its continuity rather than the tools!
Formative assessments would  been wonderful and more effective if the tools were standardised across grades, and they came with standardised rubrics. Also, if there was a more subjective from of assessment, an assessment that could do away with using the subject teacher himself/herself as the examiner. Assessments other than written ones, (projects, group activities, research papers and presentations) can be effective only in classes where the students’ strength does not exceed twenty-five students. In situations where class strength goes up to seventy students, we might as well forget about any other form of assessment  than the written one. What might work in ideal situations where the student teacher ratio is 20-1, will not work in any other situation such as those found in Government schools. Formative assessments other than the written kind are also highly dependent on Information Technology and they require teachers to have more than a basic Information Technology skills. In a country where the fruits of Information Technology is yet to reach many schools and where even now only a few teachers have good IT skills, it is doubtful if formative assessments can be accurately recorded.
The question of whether written board exams are good or bad however is difficult to answer, it is like being forced to choose between two necessary evils and deciding which is less harmful. Whether one should trust the probably fudged ten CGPA of a student passing out of the tenth grade, or the 95 % marks that a student gets in four subjects in the grade twelve board exams is for the reader to decide! The crux of the matter is whether our assessments are valid enough, whether they test actual learning and thereby indicate  capability is yet to be established. It is a known fact that even H.J.Eysenck’s  battery of tests are only indicative of what they are supposed to measure, that is I.Q. and not definitive indicators of intelligence. Even they can be challenged. The fact of the matter is that no single test is accurate enough whether it is formative or summative, and it is only after the learner has been subjected to a large number of tests and the average of all these tests is calculated that we might arrive at a more definitive score that indicates that significant learning has indeed taken place! However, it is not practical nor healthy for the learner to undergo too many tests since then, there would be less of teaching and learning taking place in the class room. There needs to be a proper balance between the teaching – learning process and assessments.What the percentage should be between actual teaching and assessments needs to be studied, the fact of the matter is that these days, there seem to be more continuous assessments taking place till grade ten than actual teaching. As a result of being used to a  reduced time for instruction as opposed to an increased time for assessment, students when they go to grade eleven find it difficult to cope with a system of education that is  all of a sudden  more about  formal instruction, written summative assessments than the fun to do formative assessments of the past grade.
I have personally come across students with a good ten CGPA in English struggling with sentence structures, and skills of expression when it comes to writing extended articles, speeches and debates in grade twelve. These students who have exceptional skills in spoken English however struggle when it comes to appearing for a written exam. One of the favourite requests from my students is to send them notes on e-mail, they will not, rather can not take down notes because they have not done enough writing in the lower grades, what with the focus being on group tasks, projects,  and other formatives that did not require much writing. The reader might ask me, so  what do such skills have to do with assessments? My answer is that written skills are an important part of assessments and they will continue to be till at least we stop witting entirely and instead use some kind of an input devise; till then, our assessments will continue to focus on the written component of assessments.
Till we come up with a better alternative to the formative assessments in high school grades eight to ten and the summative assessment in grade eleven and twelve, we will somehow have to do with a system of assessment that will take up the best of both, it should be standardized, conducted by an external agency, not the subject teacher, and it should be conducted at more regular intervals. My suggestion is for board exams to be re-introduced on these lines at the grade ten level, although these should  not be annual, rather, they should be biannual exams so that the average scores of the two would be better indicators of student learning. Also formatives should be reduced if not removed entirely from grade ten. In education boards should spend more time in improving the quality of formative assessments and these should take place only in primary classes, that is up to grade five or six. From grade seven onwards, students should focus on regular  summative assessments, like we had a few years ago, before the introduction of CCE/CCA. For grade twelve, the single annual summative board exam should stay although an additional weight age should be given to internal assessments in the form of an average of all the home exams or tests taking place throughout the academic session. The average of internal assessments should be to the tune of 25 % of the annual written board exam. A similar  system is already being followed in subjects that have a practical component like Physical Education, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

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