Assessment reforms are the real test of the government school system
Vansh Chaudhary
July 07, 2020

In an academic year, a school-going student appears for at least three to four cycles of assessments. On an ongoing basis, these assessments help demonstrate whether the objectives of school education are being met and learning level outcomes are being achieved. In addition to evaluating academic progress, assessments can also be instrumental in motivating students to improve their performance, and in providing diagnostic feedback on the impact of education-related policies or programmes.

However, assessments would fail to meet their objectives unless the assessment structure in place is strong, i.e., the testing instruments are high-quality, they are standardised, i.e. everyone across the state appears for the same exam, and the data being collected from assessment results is credible to enable targeted, point interventions. For those that have studied in good private schools and colleges, the quality of their tests was probably never a concern. However, in government schools, assessment structures are broken in multiple ways, thus hindering proper evaluation of student learning levels.

Against this backdrop, in 2016, the Government of Haryana set about to reform its assessment structure. As part of the redesign, the academic year was divided into six two-month long periods or “cycles”. At the end of each cycle, an assessment or Subjective Assessment Test (SAT) would be conducted for all grades to test academic progress. Test scores would then be uploaded onto a centralised portal by all schools to allow data-driven insights to be drawn at the state, district, and block levels. Moreover, the state decided that going forward assessments would be designed centrally by the State Council for Research and Training (SCERT) and District Institute(s) for Education and Training (DIETs) teams to ensure standardisation.

While Haryana’s assessment reforms were definitely a step in the right direction, they did not necessarily gear the state towards performing better in standardised national assessments such as the National Achievement Survey (NAS). This is due to the differing nature of questions in SAT vis-a-vis NAS; NAS is based on NCERT’s learning outcome framework, typically testing the understanding and application of concepts as opposed to SAT, which is skewed towards testing memory or recall-based questions. Moreover, in order to perform well in NAS, classroom teaching itself needs to be competency based and targeted at the attainment of learning outcomes by students.

Over the last couple of years, various initiatives have been implemented in Haryana to improve the overall academic performance of students, some of which include: remediation to help students bridge learning gaps; enabling training and mentoring support to teachers; as well as designing a review and monitoring framework to track progress of districts, blocks and schools. There has also been a concerted effort to shift the focus of classroom teaching from syllabus-completion to acquiring competencies.

Both, to test the impact of these interventions, and as a sanity check for SAT assessments, Haryana also conducts independent, state-wide, third-party assessments. Under an initiative called Saksham Ghoshna, a block is declared as Saksham and felicitated at the state level if 80% of its students are adjudged “grade-level competent” as per the standards set by the third-party. An element of gamification in Saksham Ghoshna results in healthy competition amongst blocks to be declared Saksham. Since the assessment itself--like NAS--tests pre-defined learning outcomes, classroom teaching automatically becomes focused on acquiring competencies, instead of rote-learning. In addition to being competency-based, the questions included in the Saksham exam are designed by experts to test the conceptual understanding and application of students. Moreover, detailed data is collected from the Saksham exam, thus enabling the generation of insightful block-level reports. Amongst other details, these reports help block officers in identifying the weakest subjects and corresponding competencies that require more practice in their block.

An initiative like Saksham Ghoshna has helped energise the government school education system in Haryana with government stakeholders assuming greater responsibility towards their work. In classrooms, it has incentivised competency-based teaching and learning. By providing detailed reports of student learning levels across the state, it enables targeted interventions. Finally, the “third party” element of this exercise provides external validation to the potential effectiveness of ongoing academic interventions such as remedial classes, training and mentoring support to teachers and a revamped review and monitoring framework.

In the short to medium term, high quality competency-based assessments such as Saksham Ghoshna are critical in assessing student learning levels. However, the state-conducted SAT assessments should ideally be able to serve most of the same objectives as Saksham Ghoshna. However, for this to happen, additional sets of reforms would need to be undertaken at the state level to further strengthen the SAT framework. Senior Government officials in the School Education Department appreciate the need for such reforms and are working towards this. These interventions could be particularly timely, as the state looks to improve its performance in the NAS exam, now likely to be held in 2021.