Thursday, February 25, 2016

Testing Times

The field of education and learning has always interested me. I've always been curious about how it works, what goes into education and so on.
The questions that are now occupying my thoughts relate to the area of testing.

When I did my schooling more than 25 years ago, we had to write a string of tests..class tests, unit tests, dictation tests, surprise tests...and the biggies, term exams and the final exams. These tests and exams were always a sore point not just for me but for everyone who has gone through school. Yet, some of them managed and many of them struggled. Mine was a huge struggle. Just scraping through an exam would be a moment of triumph for me. I still believe that the examiner in my Class 10 Board exam, took pity on me and handed over  a few 'grace marks' because my score was 48 on 100, the passing score being 40! I endured the pain right from Class 2 to 10, until I reached class 11, when I got to choose my subjects. I loved each one of the subjects. I understood every theory. Exams became a breeze. Why, even a pleasure! The high scores I got became a motivation to do better every time. The high point was when I managed to top the Marketing Management course with a Gold Medal! I am sure my school teachers who labelled me as 'failure student' and subjected me to every possible humiliation will not believe this story. It is ironic that today, I write for and edit school textbooks. And I totally love what I do.

Well, I often tell myself that there is no point revisiting the horrendous past but it's all coming back to haunt me. 25 years after I finished schooling, I am shocked to know that not a thing has changed in the system. It is the same exams. The same grading. The same stigma. Yes, there are School Boards like the CBSE and ICSE that are taking every effort to veer away from sole dependence on examinations. They have introduced projects, classroom assessments on various skills and many more such initiatives. But the question we need to ask is if the schools are following the pattern diligently? Are they making a mishmash of their own ideas and the Board requirements?

So, I wonder. Are written examinations the only way of testing children? What is the process-flow like? We teach the child a concept in class and want to know if he/she has understood it. How do we do it? By asking questions orally, by asking them to draw it out if the concept allows for it, by role-play, classroom discussion...all these methods are already available and being put to use but only in a small way. Ultimately we all fall back to making children write sentences, paragraphs and pages full of material just to show us they have understood the concept. This kind of assessment for the past so many years, still seems to be the only accepted thing. The written exam seems to be lord of all other forms of assessments. I once overheard a child happily tell her mother that she had scored 24.5 on 25 in her test. "Where did you lose that half mark?" snapped the mother. I couldn't bear to see the child's flower face wilt. Examinations can make or break a person's life. They can squash a person's confidence forever. Don't we read of suicide attempts every day? Yet, we are stuck to this method of assessment as if there were no other.

I give here, a very extreme example. Imagine a very bright child who doesn't have fingers in both his hands. The ideas are all up there - in his head. How will he show it to the world? He will have to perhaps find a scribe or join a school for physically challenged children. Why? Just because he can't write. There is every chance of a regular school refusing to take him in.

What about children with dyslexia? Imagine all those agonizing hours they spend before getting a grip on their pencils and these exams. I have read and been inspired by stories of so many dyslexic people who have gone ahead and made a place for themselves. But from what I have read and understood, most of them have been school dropouts and had resolved to mark their own path.

Forget those who are physically challenged and those with clinically proven learning disabilities. There is a new crop of children that are completely 'normal' in every perceivable way possible. They are as intelligent as anyone in their age group. They have only one difficulty and that is writing. This is a very common problem these days. Many teachers might agree with me that there are at least 2-3 children per class with this issue. The problem according to some experts is attributed to a very early introduction of writing. I have learnt that each child's readiness for writing varies slightly, just like any other developmental milestone. But the way early-education works in our country, children are categorised according to age groups and not skill sets. No government or Board of Education has control over what children are taught and made to do in their Kindergarten years. Some schools make them draw strokes and some schools make them write even some five letter words So when children are forced to do cursive writing before they are ready for it, some of them tend to develop writing issues in later years especially between the ages of  7 and 10*. The idea of a written test is so daunting to such children that they go off into a shell or become rebellious.

Be it primary school admissions or admissions for Post Grad courses or even Government/Public Sector job interviews...everything is based on a written exam. At least, it seems to be the first step. A person who hasn't done well in the written exam is knocked off in the very early stages. There isn't much room to look for other skills like communication, negotiation or other soft-skills. I strongly believe that expression through writing comes only for a few people, inspite of years of LSRW (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing) training right from primary levels.  Look at competitive examinations. Do you think our much celebrated dyslexics Albert Einstein or Alexander Graham Bell or Leonardo da Vinci would have cleared any of those funnily acronymed, much sought after, competitive examinations? In today's world they couldn't have ever been able to go anywhere near the esteemed universities to pursue higher education. It is another matter that the quoted people might have been only in search of knowledge and never university degrees. Sadly, things don't work that way anymore.

All of this talk brings to my mind a bigger question. What is the purpose of education? Wasn't learning supposed to be the purpose of education? Since when have exams become the be-all-and-end-all of education? Do we send children to school to learn or to pass exams? Schools and educational institutes should make learning joyful. Not intimidating. I will never forget what my mentor told me when I had written a rather tricky exercise for a grammar concept for a Class 1 textbook. She told me, "The purpose is to teach and not to test."

As simple as that. Isn't it? I am not an academician. I am not a teacher. I don't have the answers. I think of these questions just because I have once been a student. I am now a parent. I love people and the light they carry within them. Examinations, which are just one facet of learning should not snuff out the spark that every individual is born with.

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  1. Well written article Priya. You have expressed the concern of many kids, parents,teachers and academicians.I feel that once all the debate and discussion about revamping assessment methods end..people get back to what they find easy to do..conduct exams. Sad.

  2. Yes Priya, it is indeed sad that nothing has changed in the past 25 years...those who want something different have to either seek it or create it themselves. I hope this article travels far and wide and reaches the right gadget where someone who can influence change can read it and bring about a change where every child in every village, town, city can benefit. I hope we find answers soon....

    1. I will also say that the person with influence are the parents like you and me who are interested in bringing about a change...

  3. You missed the point that kids with poor verbal communication or speech disorders can suffer in oral exams. My school emphasised more on oral exams and group discussions. It was a nightmare for me. Our teachers would ask easy questions to the 'popular' kids while the unpopular ones like me had to contend with difficult questions. Once I wrote a unique and correct solution to an assignment but I barely scored fifty percent marks because the teacher couldn't understand my unconventional solution. While written exams can be a nightmare for students with dyslexia etc., oral exams/group discussions can be a nightmare for students with speech impediment, anxiety etc. I had a speech impediment in my childhood because of which I barely spoke during 'class discussions'. Although teachers knew about it but it didn't help my reputation. Despite knowing more than most of the kids, I didn't get good marks because of my 'reputation'. Oral exams would lead to quite a bias. But of course students who have difficulty in reading or writing should be tested via oral exams or other kind of tests to demonstrate their knowledge. I strongly emphasise that instead of changing the system completely, teachers and schools should "make learning joyful, not intimidating" as you said. There needs to be a change in attitude more than the system.

    P.S. At school I hated mathematics because it was intimidating, mainly because of the 'khadoos' and negative attitude of the teachers. Ironically it was only after finishing school that I found love for maths.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Nitro. You certainly have a point about the oral examinations. It saddens me to even think of the pain you must have gone through in school.
      The ideal solution would be to customise the test for each child. But with 40-45 children per class, this is a near impossible task. CBSE has got closest to this dream by introducing different kinds of assessment but again how well schools are able to implement this, is debatable. Even if one manages the exams somehow in school, there are the inevitable 'competitive exams'. Almost all of them are written tests, whatever the skill/challenge of the person might be. Yes, something needs to change somewhere.

      Oh and don't even get me started on Mathematics. Bad teachers closed my doors to the subject forever. With all its wonderful practical applications I wish I'd learnt it better in school but at that time, ratio and interest rate didn't make any sense to me at all.


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