Setting and meeting learning standards

Most of us are familiar with standardized tests for college admissions, ranging from the IIT-JEE to the CAT, SAT and GRE. In language competency, apart from the very old Hindi Prachar Sabha, which for decades has been assessing competency in Hindi, we are familiar with TOEFL and IELTS which rate competency for the purposes of higher education in English speaking countries. Whether or not such standardized large scale tests serve the purposes of assessing a certain level of knowledge and how efficient and effective they are in providing a benchmark for competency, is a debatable matter. But they are here to stay. And they have spawned a parallel industry of coaching, developing in test takers the ability to handle the model of testing they use while ostensibly building the skills that are to be tested.

If school education were to do the job that is envisioned for it – to produce young people competent to handle a variety of basic tasks and with the linguistic, analytic and numeric capability to take learning further – then extra coaching would not even be required. Testing in such a scenario is to ensure that defined standards of competency are achieved at the appropriate grade or age level. And if education has done its job, then achievement levels will follow the standard bell curve with most students attaining adequate competency. But even the most summarily done dipstick surveys in India have shown that children in most schools across the country – government run and otherwise – have reading and math skills far below the required age and grade appropriate levels.

In some other countries, appropriate skills levels are assessed at a stage in the schooling process when corrective measures can be applied without too much trauma to the child or expense to the system. The Iowa test of basic skills, for instance, is used in many US states to look at learning levels. The ASSET test offered by Education Initiatives in India does something similar. How are these tests different from school examinations? While exceptions exist, it is perhaps safe to say that most examinations in school are designed to assess knowledge of concept and content rather than test competence. Tests that assess competence look at the student’s ability to perform a task rather than their understanding of the principles behind that task – ability to perform in a sense assumes the latter, even if at an innate and not explicit level. The main utility of standardized tests is to hold different school systems and curricular authorities to certain common levels of accountability in terms of student learning.

Having moved further and further away from the true meaning and purpose of school education, we now find ourselves at a stage where we need to recover a sense of what constitutes learning, and how we measure it.

One very visible gap in learning is language competence. The mushrooming of “communication skills” courses outside of school and college clearly tells us that children do not come out of school having learnt what they need to learn to function effectively in the social and professional space. Quick coaching classes that enable one to successfully take tests such as TOEFL and IELTS may get the grades required for admission, but they do little to build true language competence.

So what’s the solution? Starting earlier? This would provide more time for course correction, and give students and teachers a sense of what needs to be done and where efforts need to be focused. The cover story in this issue features one language trainer’s experience of a new competence test that has been introduced by Cambridge, providing a window into how children learn at this stage and how difficulties can be tackled.

Perhaps it is to re-introduce a sense of balance into the assessment process that CBSE has now recommended that schools practise continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE). The accompanying feature in this cover story package looks at this approach to assessment.

Whether assessment is done through testing using standardized instruments or CCE, or some combination of the two, it is also important to keep in mind that school education is not about test taking, but about preparing children for life. So one needs to view standardized tests and other means of assessment with the respect they deserve – no more, no less!

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