There are now various assessments to measure learning levels, and much debate around what learning indicators to use at different stages of schooling. In this article, Wilima Wadhwa, Director of ASER Centre, contends that there is a lot to learn from the different approaches to assessment and the New Education Policy provides an opportunity to re-examine and unify them.
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The government’s New Education Policy (NEP) has been in the works since 2014. A taskforce was formed in February 2015, and an ambitious ‘grassroots’ consultative process announced soon after. The objective of the consultation process is to “ensure that an inclusive, participatory and holistic approach is undertaken, which takes into consideration expert opinions, field experiences, empirical research, stakeholder feedback, as well as lessons learned from best practices.”
Learning is now at the fore of education agenda
Thirteen themes in school education and 20 in higher education have been identified for the consultations. The first theme under school education is “Ensuring Learning Outcomes in Elementary Education”, and a fair amount of evidence has been accumulated on learning levels in the country in the last few years. Ten years ago when the first Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) was released, learning was not part of the general education discourse. Undoubtedly, there were learning assessments done by National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) but these were done by ‘experts’ for the consumption of ‘experts’. The data was not in the public domain, the assessments were not done on a regular basis (annually), and they were not used to inform education policy. We have come a long way since then. We now have 10 years of data from ASER that is comparable over time; NCERT assessments are more regular and results are being shared more widely; other surveys like Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) of National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) include learning assessments in their questionnaires; and many states are doing their own assessments as well. Learning has come to the fore of the education agenda and the government’s policy documents often cite and refer to these assessments.
The different approaches to assessment of learning levels
However, we still have a long way to go. All these assessments are quite different – they target different populations of children, they test different competencies, and they are administered in different environments. For instance, NCERT’s assessments are pen-and-paper tests for grades 3, 5 and 8 in government schools. Children are tested at grade competency in different subjects and the assessment is done in schools. On the other hand, ASER is a household-based assessment that tests all children in the age group of 5-16 years in basic foundational skills of reading and arithmetic. ASER is representative at the district, state and national levels, but only for rural India.
What learning indicators to use at different stages of schooling is a question that has attracted a lot of debate and discussion, including at recent NEP consultations. This is also an area where the ASER approach attracts a lot of flak. ASER tests all children in simple foundational skills. The highest level in reading in a simple grade 2 level text and the highest level in arithmetic is a division problem typically seen in grade 3/4 textbooks. The criticisms range from pointing out that since ASER uses a floor-level tool, it does not tell us anything about children who can do the ASER test, to the belief that ASER has “destroyed” the education discourse by reducing the discussion to basic reading and arithmetic while education encompasses far more than that.
The discussions in the education community often deteriorate to an ‘us and them’ position, as though the traditional school-based, pen-and-paper, grade- level competency assessment and the ASER household-based foundational assessment done by ordinary citizens are competing approaches. In fact, they are complementary in nature. If children cannot read does it make sense to give them pen-and-paper tests? Doesn’t it make sense to make sure that children can read first, before we test them in higher competencies? Once children have acquired foundational reading skills, then they can be tested at higher levels. Similarly, in a situation when 30% children in rural areas and close to 50% in urban areas are enrolled in private schools, should we not try to capture all children when we are trying to get estimates of learning levels? What about children who don’t attend school regularly? What about older children who are no longer enrolled in school? Do we not want to know whether these children can read and write? However, does this preclude school-based assessments? No it doesn’t. Does it preclude testing children who are progressing well, at grade-level-competencies? No, it doesn’t. In fact if anything, it provides a more equitable approach where learning deficits of all kinds of children – whether they are in school or not; whether they attend school regularly or not; whether they are enrolled in a private or government school – are addressed.
All assessments indicate low learning levels
Yet, all these assessments point to the same ground reality of low learning levels. Three clear trends are visible from last 10 years of ASER data: First, learning levels are low and children are far from grade competency. Second, and more importantly, not only are children 2-3 grades behind, there has been no improvement in learning levels in the last ten years. In fact, if anything, there are some indications of decline. And, finally, while children learn as they progress to higher grades, these learning trajectories are flat and each lies below the previous one for successive cohorts. In 2005, 50% children in grade 5 were unable to read a simple grade 2 level text. This number is virtually unchanged 10 years later in 2014, implying that half our children will complete primary school without being able to read fluently. This has obvious implications for learning levels in middle and secondary school as well as for studies beyond this stage.
Given this evidence, it is imperative that the NEP address these learning gaps. There are various dimensions along which this will have to be done, such as: How to change classroom practices at the required scale, so as to make teaching more effective? Does the curriculum need revision – in particular are we expecting too much from our children? How should schools and teachers identify and help children who need supplementary help?. However, one thing is clear: Unless we set clear goals about what we expect our children to know at the end of each grade, we will not get very far. Once we have clear targets, different pathways to achieve those goals can be designed.
Re-examining and unifying the different approaches to learning assessment
The situation is like the proverbial story of the blind men and the elephant. The quality of education is like an elephant and we are like the blind men working on different parts of the elephant and disagreeing on what we observe. But at the end of the day, it is one elephant and we are all working on different dimensions of the problem. Unlike in some countries where there is only one kind of measurement – usually school-based measurement, in India, we now have a whole body of evidence on how learning should be measured. Rather than quibbling about how different these approaches are, we should realise that there is a lot to learn from these different measurements. It is important to think about what is being measured and for what purpose it is being measured. The NEP provides an opportunity to bring all these different approaches under the same umbrella and fashion an education policy that will be for all of India’s children.