Opinion Op Ed 07 Apr 2017 One step forward, tw ...
The writer is a veteran school educator based in Kolkata

One step forward, two steps back

Published Apr 7, 2017, 12:46 am IST
Updated Apr 7, 2017, 7:10 am IST
Political interference in education seems to be a problem in many countries.
Representational image
 Representational image

It is that time of the year again when lakhs of students across the country are in the process of writing what they regard as the most important examination of their lives — their school-leaving one. The preparation schedule of the Central Board candidates has already been disrupted by the rescheduling of examinations due to the Assembly elections in five states. It is our children who usually pay the price for the vagaries of politics. For example, reforms in education are zealously introduced by the party in power, only to be rolled back equally zealously by the next. The extent to which these frequent changes affect the quality of education is not known, but certainly they do not make life easy for our schoolchildren or their teachers. The latest reforms of the CBSE Board with regard to examinations indicate yet another “rollback”, and not an attempt to modernise the assessment system. The focus is back on the single written “final” exam. The “Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation” so carefully conceptualised and fine-tuned has now been relegated to the backburner.

The features of the CCE made for the holistic evaluation of a child. Different ways of assessing were in place, including oral tests, audio-visual presentations, projects and essays, besides the conventional written test. Moreover, a child’s assessment would be based on his/her performance throughout the year and not on the final test alone. This certainly made sense if we consider multiple intelligences and individual learning styles, and it certainly reduced stress in the student’s life. Assessment is an intrinsic part of any learning. But a single examination is an unfair way to measure a student’s learning. The “one-size-fits-all” approach is disastrous. Thousands of students in different parts of the country write their papers in widely varying conditions. Moreover, many fall sick but somehow try to complete their examinations as they do not wish to waste a whole year. Many students study just on the eve of the final examination, and several do selective study. It stands to reason that continuous evaluation is a far more scientific way of assessing a child’s learning.

 

It is not funny to watch on television people climbing ladders to reach the windows of the examination hall in order to shout out the answers or throw answersheets to the candidates inside. The protagonist in the film Jolly LL.B. 2 was much in demand as he expertly conveyed all the correct answers to the examinees via a public address system. In spite of being fully aware of these practices, why are those in authority taking some steps backward? The content-heavy syllabuses and multiple-choice fact-based questions encourage rote learning and cheating. Non-scholastic activities are not being given much importance in the new scheme of things. People are still stuck with the idea that music, sports, art, public speaking and dramatics are “extra-curricular” activities. Yet they are very much a part of education. All students will not end up in academia. Therefore, each student must be assessed holistically. Even prospective employers are unimpressed by subject grades alone — they are interested in the whole individual.

 

The board had wisely recommended the need for multiple modes of assessment to cater to the varied abilities of learners. So open textbook-based assessment was introduced with much fanfare in March 2014 in the Class 9 and Class 11 examinations. This form of assessment was also meant to incorporate analytical skills. Questions were open-ended, and involved thinking skills. The OTBA was an excellent idea, but it is now being unceremoniously done away with, after just three years. Further, the Class 10 board examination — optional since 2010 — will be compulsory again and Class 9 grades will not be mentioned in the Class 10 reports. The “no-detention” policy up to Class 8 is being reconsidered. It is true that no matter how much we try, we can’t seem to get away from rote learning, set question patterns, sample answers and the ubiquitous coaching centres. In other words, implementation of the new ideas may have been faulty, but why is the baby being thrown out with the bathwater? We have certainly regressed by going back to assessing all school-leavers on the basis of a single written examination. By making the nature of the examination rigidly uniform throughout the country, we are damaging our bright and delightfully different children by forcing them to fit into the same mould. Besides, the sheer numbers demand different kinds of examinations.

 

This need had been addressed, but now the authorities are busy undoing the earlier measures. Instead, we should have modernised our assessment techniques further by introducing different tracks in the key subjects. For example, the International Baccalaureate curriculum has three tracks in mathematics — standard, advanced and elementary (ab initio). This approach could eliminate maths phobia considerably. But I am so glad that at least we have different boards to choose from, and I dread the day when there will be just one board. It may seem practical and fair — but it will spell disaster when we assess different kinds of students by the same yardstick. No wonder so many students from privileged schools get such absurdly high marks. It is only in comparison with disadvantaged students who have been deprived of good teaching and learning aids that they appear to shine extra brightly. The bench-marking is plainly faulty. Political interference in education seems to be a problem in many countries. The stand that “political pressures undermine efforts to improve the education system” resonates with most professionals in the teaching field. “Political firefighting and shaping policy around electoral cycles has a destructive impact”, says Sir David Bell, former UK education secretary. Most significantly, he has demanded an independent body to set long-term policy “separated from the shifting demands of party politics”. It is pathetic that when children elsewhere are being made “future ready” by judicious reforms in education and assessment, children in India are left with a “sabre-tooth” curriculum and the senseless flip-flop changes that are driven by “ministerial whims” or obvious political agendas.

 

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