The central function of an education system is improvement in knowledge, skills, abilities, and other learning attributes and this is the reason that parents, educationists, policy makers, and other stakeholders are anxious over the falling learning levels among schools students. In recent years, two issues related to students’ degrading performance captured considerable attention in educational discourses. These are –
- No Detention Policy (NDP) – Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) policy debate
- Formative – summative practice debate
NDP – CCE policy debate
These two policy interventions are so strongly interlinked that they cannot be discussed in isolation. What was the intent behind NDP and CCE, mandated under Sections 16 and 21(2)(h) of the RTE Act (2009) at the elementary education level? It was primarily to –
- minimize school-dropout rates due to the fear of failure or pressure of examinations and retain every child in the school system, and
- improve the quality of learning by providing joyful and meaningful learning experiences to every child.
However, since 2009-2010 a significant decline in learning levels has been reported (ASER, 2015). There has been a downslide in the reading ability of class five students from 2010 to 2014. During this same period, the decline in arithmetic ability was even greater. This situation forces us to ask what is not right in our classrooms.
CCE was visualized to complement and support NDP, but a report of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) sub-committee identified a misinterpretation of NDP and lack of system preparedness for CCE as one of the key factors responsible for the declining learning levels.
It is worth mentioning here that CCE is not a new paradigm introduced by the RTE Act; it has been recommended by different education commissions and policies as a pedagogic intervention to improve teaching and learning. However, the focus shifted from teaching and learning to reporting, during its implementation. The purpose was lost and displaced by an overzealous focus on the use of jargon like scholastic and co-scholastic areas; formative and summative assessments (popular as FA and SA); and, Grade Points (GPA/CGPA) in students’ report cards.
The formative-summative debate
Today, a typical school calendar is built around the FA and SA. A student’s report card shows performance in terms of grades/marks under formative and summative assessments. Is it really important to report formative assessment? In fact, does it make any sense to award marks or grades for formative assessment? The essential purpose of assessment is to improve learning, but by categorizing assessment as formative or summative and by not fully utilizing the rich information we receive from assessments we have failed in realizing this essential purpose. How meaningful is this classification? It is very hard to find a consistent definition of ‘formative’ and ‘summative’ in assessment literature. A very popular criterion for categorization is the time of administration, i.e., after completing a topic or course versus during learning. Research literature often refers to SA as ‘assessment of learning’, and tends to associate FA with ‘assessment for learning’. However, in many instances these are not mutually exclusive, and information collected from SA can be used to improve learning. Similarly, evidence collected during various FAs can be extrapolated for summative purposes.
The point here is that the focus on summative and formative assessment is a distraction. In order to improve students’ learning, a paradigm shift is necessary in the purpose of educational assessment at the classroom level. This shift should be predicated on contextual theories of learning and assessment, and best classroom practices. The most meaningful way to assess experimental skills, music, and dance abilities is while students are performing these activities; irrespective of whether it is for formative or summative purpose. Similarly, a paper-pencil test may or may not be used for giving feedback regarding strengths and weaknesses. It depends on the purpose. The focus must be on assessing what has to be assessed in the most appropriate way and then making sure that the information is always used to improve learning.
A pragmatic approach of assessment in classrooms
The purpose of assessment is necessarily to improve the teaching-learning process. Assessment that directly connects to the teaching-learning process is more likely to have a positive effect on the learning. The Section 3.11.1 of the Assessment chapter of the National Curriculum Framework (2005) states the above proposition as follows:
“… the teacher is able to give one-on-one time to work with the child, beginning with what she/he knows and moving to what she/he needs to learn through a continuous process of assessment and careful observation.”
It implies that assessment is a vital aspect of teacher-learner interaction. Let us focus on three components of the above statement and their linkages with the purpose of assessment in the context of modern theories of assessment and learning –
- what he/she knows – to build the image of a learner or locate him/her on the developmental pathway
- moving to what he/she needs to learn – to stimulate and facilitate movement along the developmental continuum
- a continuous process of assessment and careful observation – to monitor the achievement level or growth of the children
This categorization is embedded in the functional definition of assessment “Assessment involves professional judgment based upon an image formed by the collection of information about student performance.” This definition further establishes the capacity, role, and accountability of the teacher towards student performance. The following section deals with the shift needed in these three purposes.
To locate the learner on the developmental pathway: The primary purpose
Current paradigm – There is an over-reliance on grades or scores with little information on what students know, understand, and can do.
Contextual paradigm – The primary purpose of assessment should be to build the image of the learner. The image of the students is constructed on the basis of evidence drawn from the learning behaviour they demonstrate during interaction with teachers and peers, their performance in various learning and assessment activities, and their school work. Evidence may be gathered using less structured informal methods like ongoing observation of performance to more structured methods.
Image is specific to the time of the assessment and to the areas of learning. It may include information gleaned from various levels of assessment obtained from broad to increasingly narrow and specific areas of learning. It may be as simple as establishing the performance level of a student in mathematics, or it may be as specific as measuring the ability of the student to apply the concept of linear equations with two variables for the given problem.
This shift will require preparedness and acceptance among various stakeholders. Because the above assessment will call for a departure from giving primacy to the test score/grade and ask for descriptors which illustrate how well students know and can do something.
To enable the child to move along the developmental pathway
Current paradigm – Feedback on student performance is of little value in improving learning and teaching.
Contextual paradigm – Critical evaluation of students’ image against ‘what they are expected to know and do in their learning pathway’, and then using this information to determine the subsequent learning strategy for each child. This purpose can be realized in the classroom in the following manner –
- Teachers analyze the image in order to determine the learning areas, methods, and processes that are of more significance for individual students.
- Sharing the above analysis with students so that they know
- their location on the developmental pathway.
- what can they do in order to move to the next level on the continuum.
- Teachers design suitable learning experiences with students to support their developmental journey.
Two practices that have the potential to realize this paradigm have been discussed here in detail. The most important consideration is that students progress in different areas of learning at different rates, which in turn demands variation in nature and time of support to meet the needs and learning style of the individual learner. This is what forms the guiding principle of personalized teaching and learning. Personalized learning heavily relies on individualized meaningful and effective feedback. It necessitates that every feedback is intended and timed to inform teaching-learning. Hattie (1999) found that feedback was the most powerful tool to improve the achievement of students. Teachers need to give clear, purposeful, and meaningful feedback that is compatible with students’ existing knowledge and understanding level.
Let us see two examples:
- B+! Good work! I am proud of you.
- You solved equations correctly. However, you need to include a written or visual explanation.
Let us critically examine the above feedback.
- Is it meaningful and useful for students?
- Is it supported by credible evidence about progress and achievement?
- Does it provide information to do better the next time?
- Will the student be self-motivated to progress?
Effective feedback can result in as much as 37 percent gain in achievement (Darling, 1989). To be effective, feedback needs to be used by students to adjust their learning strategies and by teachers to make daily micro-level adjustments to their teaching. At the same time, it is equally important to communicate that we care about the individual progress of every learner. When used to inform, guide, and personalize learning and teaching, this is known as ‘formative’ assessment (Popham, 2008). Thus, ‘formative’ best describes a particular use of assessment information – not a separate class of assessment instruments or processes. Any kind of assessment may be used as both formative and summative by the teacher.
To measure and monitor achievement levels
Current paradigm – Measurement is restricted to a body of knowledge and not the full range of abilities and other attributes acquired by the students. Reports seldom provide any information about the growth of a learner.
Contextual paradigm – This purpose of assessment is very popular since the inception of formal education and is also well-documented. However, in practice it rarely provides information such as
- has a student’s reading ability or research skills (or any other attribute) improved over a period of time or since the start of the last grade?
- has there been an improvement in the overall performance of students in a school because the school has adopted a new teaching methodology?
Answers to these questions provide indicators of relative growth or progress over time. Assessments designed for such purpose are often categorized as “assessment of learning” or SA. It is necessary to reiterate that SA is not fundamentally a different class of assessments. They are assessments taken by students at a specific time during their journey of learning, and thus have the same basic features of FA. Feedback from these assessments may not necessarily be used immediately to adjust teaching strategies, but they provide insight into the required changes to improve teaching and learning.
Secondly, we need to consider that classroom practices, including assessments are deeply rooted in societal expectations and what is relevant in today’s world. Expectation from schooling today is not limited to the knowledge domain. It also includes
- performance skills: doing something with precision that makes the process as important as the outcome or product.
- thinking abilities (critical thinking): using the knowledge and understanding to figure out things and solve personal, social, and professional problems in creative and innovative ways.
- developing valued feelings, attitudes, interests, motivations and other values required for personal and social wellbeing.
It is implicit that students should be assessed in ways they acquire knowledge, skills, abilities and dispositions. For example –
- Research skills can be best assessed by having students conduct a research project, communicate the findings to other students and teachers, and defend results in the classroom.
- Collaboration skills may be assessed through observing students at work in groups.
- Critical thinking and problem solving skills may be assessed by engaging students in a case study where they can define problems, formulate hypothesis, seek evidence, make inductive/deductive inferences and use their decision-making skills.
Therefore, authentic assessment necessitates that teachers and educators have
- a deeper understanding of how students demonstrate those attributes in their behaviour.
- a mastery in designing learning and/or assessment tasks to elicit target knowledge, skills and abilities.
- commitment to improve performance of students over a period of time.
One of the main reasons of poor performance is that students fail to understand what they should do in order to move ahead. Teachers and students need to work collectively to utilize the information from assessments to improve learning. Teacher empowerment and accountability will be the driving force to improve student performance.
- ASER (2015): “Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2014”. ASER Centre. New Delhi. http://img.asercentre.org/docs/Publications/ASER%20Reports/ASER%202014/fullaser2014mainreport_1.pdf.
- Darling-Hammond, L. (1989). Curiouser and Curiouser. Alice in testingland. Rethinking Schools. 3(2): 1-17.
- Hattie, John (1999): Influences on student learning. Inaugural Professorial Lecture. August 1999. University of Auckland. https://cdn.auckland.ac.nz/assets/education/hattie/docs/influences-on-student-learning.pdf.
- Ministry of Law and Justice (2009): “The right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009”. New Delhi.
- Ministry of Human Resource and Development (2015): “Report of CABE Sub-Committee on Assessment & Implementation of CCE & No Detention Provision (Under the RTE ACT 2009)”. New Delhi.
- National Council of Educational Research and Training (2005): “National Curriculum Framework 2005”.NCERT. New Delhi.
- Popham, W. J (2008): Transformative Assessment, Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
The author has been in the field of education and research for more than 18 years and has worked in various capacities as a science teacher, pre and in-service teacher educator and education researcher. She is currently associated with Centre of Excellence, Pearson Assessment Centre, Noida. She can be reached at email@example.com.