Grading as a number-crunching game

Mounik Shankar Lahiri

“There can be infinite uses of the computer and of new age technology, but if teachers themselves are not able to bring it into the classroom and make it work, then it fails.” – Nancy Kassebaum

The adage that ‘change’ is the only permanent thing in society can be no truer than it is for school education in the 21st Century with technology being increasingly marketed as a saviour for falling educational standards in schools and classrooms. The number of businesses and service providers today who engage themselves with school education, whether it be in testing, assessment, or classroom learning processes have increased exponentially with many for-profit start-ups and established businesses looking to capture this market. These organizations do not always have experienced teachers or experts in cognitive science, but are more frequently staffed by data crunchers. Additionally, most of these organizations see it as an extremely lucrative market that promises good returns on investment. Despite this, the crucial question to be asked, with respect to educational quality is, have increased technology and outsourced classroom processes of devising assessment modules and assessing student performance really improved the quality of education in our schools?

mounik-1 Indian school education, in many ways, has been at the cornerstone of two significant developments. First, it is faced with a demand from a lot of new generation parents and in limited ways, educational boards, for incorporating progressive pedagogy that improves student interactions and learning outcomes, especially the demand to move to more inclusive processes. The second development is that there is an increased availability and demand for integrating technology in the classroom, most of which is presumably to improve pedagogic standards and processes. It is therefore important to critically examine the extent to which technology in the classroom helps learning outcomes, especially when viewed through the prism of outsourced grading and assessments.

The main impetus to the outsourcing of assessment modules comes from a remarkable paradigmatic shift in educational policy in India, especially through the ‘Right to Education Act’ mandated ‘Continuous and Comprehensive Assessment’ (CCE). The stated aim of this shift is to be able to assess every aspect of the child’s presence in a school and not just subject a child to periodic examinations that attempt to test a year of classroom learning and instruction delivery. It is believed that this will reduce the burden on every child before the examination as the overall assessment period is spread out across many different small tests, which will in turn ensure that material already covered is not repeated for the purposes of evaluation. This reduces the burden of having to be tested on large volumes of content, information, and skills at one go.

My brief exploration of the question on this paradigmatic shift, which has been facilitating the new trend of outsourcing the vital functions of schools that were typically performed by teachers and school administrators, namely assessments, testing, and evaluations, led me to two different exercises. The first exercise was to systematically review the marketing literature of some of the leading assessment and testing organizations in today’s education market, and secondly to interview some vital stakeholders on their perceptions and experiences with respect to this development.

The study of the marketing literature points to the fact that the main selling point for their services, interestingly is, the promise of capturing and using data points about student performance for improving and devising further assessments and also learning interventions. This, therefore, is centred on the belief that more data about student performance is better for the student, the school, the teacher, and the parent. While this is arguable, what we need to think about is the potential of this move to de-center and disempower the teacher, who thus far has been key to all learning-evaluation processes.

It is clear that these developments are all rooted in a philosophy of education that is largely mechanical, contrary to progressive educational policy. In the mechanical approach learning is nothing but a series of sequential, programmatic steps that can be designed to best reach specific learning goals. Even the slightest exposure to the science of human cognition, especially classroom learning, tells us how learning is a much more subjective and interactive process, where the dynamics of student-teacher interaction, the scope for motivation for students with special learning needs and attention to different learning aspects are best left to a capable and skilled teacher with complete autonomy in the classroom. And it is in empowering teachers that learning needs can be best addressed, as opposed to reducing them to mere agents of technological facilitation through a rigid mechanical and programmatic structure.

My interviews with teachers, school management, and service providers indicate that the answer to this question is layered and extremely nuanced and depends on who is responding. Also, there are variations among stakeholders, both those within a group as well as those in different groups. Despite the variance, it could be safely stated that most teachers’ opinions vary between it having moderately benefited to adversely impacted educational outcomes, with almost nobody finding it to be as much of a revolutionary impact as is often claimed by the assessment and grading businesses. Most interviews with parents of students who have had their testing and assessments in their schools outsourced said they don’t know if the performance of their kids has improved through external testing modules but said the burden on the students has certainly not reduced, which was the stated aim of the new educational policy, but instead has increased, due to the way these assessments are devised.

Most service providers that I interacted with claim that their greatest value addition in schools is that they use technology facilitated data collection from exam evaluations to inform teachers and students. They claim to communicate learning gaps that need to be filled, to the school management. This claim however works well if two things can be assumed. First, teachers would need to be empowered and cognizant of how such conclusions are made on student performance, which in some ways reflects their own performance in the classroom. Second, the teachers would need to have enough autonomy, time, and space to use such data to actually make a difference to such supposed learning gaps. Also, the reliability of the data collected from the assessments depends on some requisite amount of coordination between the way lessons are taught in class, and the way in which they get tested, because without such coordination, the conclusions drawn from performance data of students through such standardized testing would be misplaced and misinformed and typically lead to erroneous conclusions.

An interesting perspective on outsourced assessment was provided by a math teacher from Mumbai. She said that the disconnects between what she was teaching in the class and the assessments are sometimes so frequent that she would routinely find herself frustrated with her role as the subject teacher. According to her, the most frustrating part of this trend is that the students very often would end up being tested on topics that they hadn’t studied before in class, which would demoralise many students. She further added that at the beginning of each school session, all the teachers would be told about the syllabus to be followed and specifically trained on the methods of breaking down the content and planning of the year, the unit, and the weeks out, along with being provided with sample assessments. The school management at the other end, would also notify the organizations that create those assessments with the planning of units and the breakdown proposed by the school management, which is also in accordance with how the teachers have been trained and how they have been told to plan their teaching schedule.

However, she said, despite this, there would invariably be a disconnect between the breakdown of the content that the assessment creating organization uses and the one that the teacher uses to cover in class. She however maintained that this has been purely her experience, though she says she has known many other teachers with similar problems. She further mentioned that in her school, the standardized assessment outsourcing was limited to only Math and English, and that as far as she has known and experienced, math teachers faced a far greater problem than the English teachers with respect to this new trend. This revelation was quite interesting, since in line with the marketing literature of most of these organizations that typically advertise their services to the school management, the tallest claims are made with respect to math instructions and how their services can lead to improving math instructions, where very often students form a mental block due to deficient teaching.

mounik-2 Some other teachers that I interviewed across different subjects told me that most schools do not limit the outsourcing of subjects to Math and English, since it becomes more cost effective for school managements to outsource more subjects as that brings the cost per subject down, owing to economies of scale that allows better pricing advantages to be passed on to the school management from the manufacturers. Teachers of other subjects also pointed to this disconnect between what is taught in class and the scheduling of third-party assessments in science and social studies as well. It was only a few teachers who suggested that the learning outcomes have slightly improved after the trend of outsourcing assessments started and the majority of them also claimed that they have a far greater control over the assessments that are devised by such service providers and that they have greater coordination with the service provider, without needing intermediation from the school management. They also said they have somehow managed to outsource mostly routine administrative tasks and still manage to retain greater control over more discretionary teaching activities.

My interviews with representatives of school managements indicated that the fundamental reason they outsource such assessments and grading to external service providers is to reduce the workload of teachers, and to have access to more data on teacher performance or learning outcomes. Further, they added that greater availability of student performance data affords better communication with the parents. As well intentioned as this may sound, many of these work counter to the stated intentions. For instance, even though teacher workload can be reduced with technological inputs, complete outsourcing to an external service provider, reduces the teachers’ ability to control the assessment process accurately. Moreover, using tests by external entities that have little understanding of specific classroom circumstances to assess teacher and student performance can disempower both the teachers and the students.

It might be tempting to conclude that my main argument through my interviews and related literature review is that technological inputs in the classroom are necessarily counter-productive. However, the arguments and direction I offer are slightly more nuanced. Like I have explained before, some of the teachers I interviewed were of the opinion that sometimes external service providers do in fact assist in reducing the workload of the teachers by assisting them in mechanising some routine administrative tasks and/or offering them an interface to record and monitor student performance data. However, it is when teachers lose their autonomy and control over technology, assessment processes and when they are told to implement conclusions from a process where they had no or minimal participation in, that the classroom dynamics get affected the most, often adversely impacting learning outcomes.

Therefore, if external service providers are to have a constructive role, it would be in offering teachers technological products and interfaces which the teacher can use to better manage student data and to devise assessments themselves. Such services can only be used to assist teaching and assessment processes and shouldn’t be a replacement of their expertise, experience, role, and autonomy in the classroom, especially if learning outcomes are to be upheld and improved in the classroom. None of these however implies that constant teacher training and capacity improvement of the teacher with data on learning outcomes needs to be neglected, but that the best use of technology in the classroom is always in supplementing the teacher’s role and potential and not in limiting or constraining it by entities far distanced from the classroom.

The author is currently a Graduate Scholar towards the degree of Masters of Public Policy, with the Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, at the National Law School of India University. His research areas include among other things, Educational Policies and Pedagogy. He can be reached at mouniklahiri@nls.ac.in.

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