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National Achievement Survey 2015 India’s Premier School Examinations Board

An EW extrapolation of the recently published National Achievement Survey (NAS) 2015, which for the first time measured the real learning outcomes of class X students of schools affiliated with 33 school examination boards countrywide, indicates that the Delhi-based CISCE is the country’s #1 school examinations board   Dilip Thakore

In a surprise verdict, the Delhi-based Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE, estb.1958) has been adjudged India’s best school-leaving examinations board. This verdict is the outcome of a first-ever National Achievement Survey (NAS) 2015, which measured the learning outcomes of a sample database of 277,416 class X students of 7,216 schools affiliated with two pan-India and 31 state government examination boards. The randomly selected students were administered standardised tests in five subjects (English, maths, science, social science and the dominant state language) by the Delhi-based National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT) over five months. The results of this unprecedented survey were released in Delhi by NCERT on March 16.

This result is surprising because NCERT is a subsidiary organisation of the Union ministry of human resource development (HRD) presided by iron lady Smriti Irani. And the surprise element is that the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) — the country’s largest pan-India examinations board which has 17,453 primary-secondary schools countrywide affiliated with it — also a subsidiary of the HRD ministry, has come second. In the circumstances, it redounds to the credit of NCERT that it has broadcast the results of a survey certain to cause heart-burn in the boardrooms of CBSE and Shastri Bhavan, New Delhi which houses the Union HRD ministry.

Little wonder that Gerry Arathoon, an alumnus of Osmania University and Regional College of Education, Bhubaneswar, who acquired valuable teaching and administrative experience in St. Thomas’ Boys School, Kolkata and as deputy secretary of CISCE’s East Zone office and currently the chief executive and secretary of CISCE, is delighted with the results of NCERT’s first-ever measurement of learning outcomes of class X students of 33 exam boards countrywide. “It’s very satisfying to learn that class X students of CISCE schools have outperformed their counterparts in CBSE and the state boards in four out of five subjects of the first-ever standardised countrywide test. I congratulate all CISCE-affiliated schools. The results of the survey are very encouraging and reinforce our board’s deep commitment to continuously strive for academic excellence,” says Arathoon.

According to Arathoon, the excellent performance of CISCE students in the inaugural NAS 2015 is attributable to deep research and continuous upgradation of the board’s syllabi prescribed for affiliated schools. “The CISCE board has always strived to forge ahead with new ideas and innovations to ensure that the teaching-learning process is a dynamic and rewarding experience.

The council has kept pace with the changing scenario by ensuring that in addition to conforming with contemporary global education trends, its prescribed syllabi are also relevant, flexible and meaningful in content, and provide students with a strong base for future studies. This has been substantiated by the NAS survey conducted by NCERT,” he adds.

Arathoon’s exhilaration is understandable given this is the first time NCERT, which hitherto sporadically conducted learning measurement tests for primary students, has tested final year high school students across the country. Obviously inspired by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), conducted since 2000 by the Paris-based OECD (a club of rich countries), which measures the reading, maths and science attainments of representative batches of 15-year-olds from over 70 countries every three years, the NCERT team led by Dr. Y. Sreekanth took great pains to test 277,416 students of 7,216 schools affiliated with the pan-India CISCE, CBSE and 31 state examination boards. The standardised tests were conducted over a five-month period (November-March) and provide a wealth of data for educationists, sociologists and political analysts.

In this connection, it’s pertinent to note that in 2009 a batch of 15-year-olds from private and government schools in Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu was selected by the HRD ministry to write PISA. The outcome was disastrous. The Indian students were ranked 73rd, above only one country: Kyrgyzstan. Evidently, just as the repeated failure of Indian universities to figure in the Top 200 of the World University Rankings surveys conducted by the London-based QS and THE has inspired the HRD ministry’s first-ever ratings and ranking of Top 100 Indian universities, engineering colleges and B-schools under its indigenous National Institutional Ranking Framework (results published in early April), the inglorious performance of the first and only batch of Indian students to write PISA has inspired the ministry-sponsored NAS 2015 for 15-16-year-old class X students.

An alum of Krishna Devaraya University (Andhra Pradesh) and professor and head of the education surveys department at NCERT, Sreekanth freely admits that the council’s unprecedented “standardised and context-free objective tests using uniform tools” is inspired by PISA. “The administration of standardised tests serve a useful purpose because they measure the unprepared learning and problem-solving capabilities of students. In the NAS survey of class X students, the average national score of all the 2.70 lakh children was a disappointing less than 50 percent in all tested five subjects. The results of the survey also indicate that students of private, urban unaided CISCE and CBSE schools exhibit better learning achievements than private aided schools, and students of private aided schools fared better than government schools. The average low achievement is an outcome of lack of conceptual clarity and understanding of the subjects tested. The survey results also suggest the need for better pre-service and in-service teacher training to improve pedagogies relating to the tested subjects. The low average score of less than 50 percent of this nationally representative sample class X students also indicates the need to review and reform syllabi and curriculums on the basis of NAS 2015 results,” says Sreekanth.

Although the idea of conducting an indigenous NAS in the aftermath of the dismal performance of Indian students in the PISA test seven years ago aroused scepticism, and even scorn in some academic circles, the NCERT team led by Dr. Sreekanth (comprising professors A.D. Tiwari, Sridhar Srivastava and Dr. Satya Bhushan) has produced an excellent report highlighting the reality of outdated syllabuses and exam-centred pedagogies which is at odds with real learning and development of cognitive skills. Moreover, the survey identifies the laggard states in each of the five tested subjects, highlights rural-urban learning disparities and the reality that despite loudly proclaimed reservations and special facilities, the learning outcomes of children from scheduled caste and scheduled tribe households, obliged by socio-economic backwardness to attend government schools, is “significantly (statistically)” lower than of other students in the states and Union territories.

“The objective of imparting quality education includes enhancing standards along with equity in education. The performance of government schools is found below than both of government-aided and private schools,” write the authors of NAS 2015 in typically cautious, unassertive bureaucratese of government agency reports.

With reference to the actual results of the country’s first-ever class X students achievement survey, the performance of CISCE schools, ranked #1 in four of the five test subjects including maths and science, torpedoes the popular perception that CISCE schools are best for English and humanities, while CBSE-affiliated schools generally provide superior maths and science education.

The popular belief is that CBSE science and maths syllabuses tend to be more closely aligned with IIT-JEE and other national engineering/medical entrance exams. However, NAS 2015 which reveals that 61 percent of CISCE students correctly answered the maths test paper as against only 50 percent of CBSE students, and respective scores for science — 68 cf. 57 — busts this myth. Expectedly in English (84 cf. 68) and social sciences (61 cf. 59), CISCE students trumped their CBSE counterparts. Only in MIL (main Indian language) have CBSE examinees edged out their peers in CISCE schools (see table p.42).

An extrapolation of NAS 2015 also indicates which state examination boards prescribe better syllabuses/curriculums. Although Prof. Sreekanth warns against using NAS 2015 data to establish a rankings league table as “it’s against international norms and practice”, this argument is unconvincing.

For instance, the authors of the transnational Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA, described hereinabove), which is the inspiration of the inaugural NAS 2015, rank countries on the basis of the performance of nationally representative batches of 15-year-olds tested for reading, maths and science. Therefore going out on a limb, your editors have aggregated the five subjects score of examinees and ranked India’s 33 school examination boards in descending order by adding two columns to the official NAS 2015 Overall Findings table. We believe ranking India’s 33 school examination boards inter se serves the useful public purpose of identifying which boards offer better syllabuses/curriculums enabling real learning. This may spur lower ranked boards to get their act together and review and contemporise their syllabuses.

Be that as it may, promoters and principals of CISCE-affiliated schools are delighted that their class X students have topped NAS 2015. For them, it’s a vindication that their syllabuses/curriculums are delivering real learning outcomes to 15-16-year-olds and best preparing them for college and university education.

“Before the promotion of GSIS 40 years ago, I thoroughly investigated the relative merits of the CISCE and CBSE syllabuses before opting for the former. The CISCE board is fully autonomous, managed by experienced educationists and completely independent of government. On the other hand, CBSE is too close to the HRD ministry, and controlled by government bureaucrats. I have never agreed with the popular belief that CBSE-affiliated schools provide better maths and science education and NAS 2015 confirms this,” says Dr. P.C. Thomas, promoter-principal of the Good Shepherd International School (GSIS), Ooty, affiliated with the CISCE, CIE (UK) and IBO (Geneva) examination boards.

In the latest EducationWorld India School Rankings 2015, GSIS, which has 850 students and sprawls across 200 acres in scenic and salubrious Ooty, was ranked #2 nationwide in the high-end category of fully residential international schools. “As you may be aware, our school is also affiliated with two international examination boards — CIE (UK) and IBO (Geneva) — and the achievement gap between CISCE and CIE students is closing,” adds Thomas.

Similarly for Manas Mehrotra, a former chartered accountant with an MBA from the well-known Babson College, Boston and a trustee of the Greenwood High Trust (regstd.2004) which has promoted three K-12 schools in Bangalore — the CISCE-affiliated Greenwood High, Sarjapur and Greenwood High, Bannerghatta and Greenwood High International, affiliated with CIE and IBO — which have an aggregate 4,300 students mentored by 350 teachers on their muster rolls, the conclusions of NAS 2015 are a vindication.

“The first Greenwood High School was promoted in response to demand from parents in Bangalore for high-quality CISCE education in which there’s strong emphasis on English language and literature, and the humanities. Moreover, since the affiliation norms of CISCE are more stringent, the number of CISCE schools is small. This enables the board to pay greater attention to development needs of its schools. And since we also run Greenwood High International which is affiliated with CIE and IBO, we have imported the best practices of the international boards into our CISCE-affiliated Greenwood High schools.

Therefore, the learning achievements gap between our CISCE and international school students is very narrow,” says Mehrotra.

While it’s unsurprising that promoters and principals of CISCE-affiliated schools are chuffed by the declared results of NAS 2015, it is somewhat a surprise that Sumer Singh, principal of the K-12 CBSE-affiliated Daly College, Indore (estb.1882), ranked India’s #1 day-cum-boarding school in the latest EducationWorld India School Rankings 2015, is in broad agreement with the conclusions of NAS 2015.

“I have taught in CBSE and CISCE schools and my experience is that the CISCE syllabus for English and the humanities is the best of all Indian exam boards because it is more liberal and permits schools to choose from suggested textbooks. On the other hand, because the number of CBSE schools is much greater and covers a broad quality spectrum, its syllabus is somewhat levelled down, especially in English learning. However, I am surprised the performance of CBSE students in the maths and science tests wasn’t better than of CISCE children. This is perhaps because the textbooks choice of CBSE schools is too restricted. This enables them to do well in exams but not in off-syllabus objective tests. Nevertheless, in Daly College we teach much beyond the syllabus and there’s heavy emphasis on English and experiential learning which places our students on a par with the best CISCE schools,” says Singh, who began his teaching career in The Doon School, Dehradun (CISCE) and served a long stint as headmaster of the CBSE-affiliated Lawrence School, Sanawar before being appointed principal of Daly College in 2003.

Although all principals and K-12 education experts sounded by EW for this feature diplomatically refrained from saying so directly, they believe that the relatively poor performance of CBSE students in the objective, syllabi-neutral standardised tests of NAS 2015 is attributable to the less than arms-length autonomy of the country’s largest pan-India school examinations board from the Union HRD ministry (and NCERT).

“There’s no doubt in my mind that CISCE-prescribed syllabi tend to be more child-centric and liberal than of CBSE. CISCE school managements have the choice of a wider variety of textbooks, accord more emphasis to science practicals and have fully adopted enquiry-based, experiential learning. On the other hand, CBSE maths and science syllabi are too heavy, the choice of textbooks is limited to NCERT publications and this board has strong government links with the result that it has become quite bureaucratic. Moreover, it conducts too many higher education public exams including the IIT-JEE and consequently has less time for affiliated schools,” says Shomie Das, former headmaster of The Doon School, Dehradun (CISCE), Mayo College, Ajmer (CBSE) and Lawrence School, Sanawar (CBSE), and arguably the most experienced primary-secondary educationist countrywide.

Even if the focus of this feature is the relative performances of CISCE and CBSE class X students in NAS 2015 because the overwhelming majority of EducationWorld readers are parents, principals, teachers and senior students of these schools, the objective standardised five-subjects NAS test was also administered to class X pupils of state examination boards to present an all-India picture. Although the national average in all subjects is a disappointing below 50 percent, i.e, less than half of the 277,416 students got all the test ‘items’ (questions) correct, an inter-states comparison of the performance of students of schools affiliated with the 31 state boards also busts a few misconceptions about primary-secondary education standards in the states.

For instance, real learning outcomes of state board students of the tiny state of Nagaland (pop.2.3 million), often dismissed as grossly under-developed by Delhi-based and metropolitan education pundits, are relatively better, particularly in English and social science, than other reportedly more educationally advanced states. Karnataka state board students fared surprisingly well in the social sciences, despite low average score in English, a consequence of the deliberate suppression of English language learning for over two decades. Moreover, despite Karnataka hosting the largest number of IT and software services companies countrywide, only 22 percent of state board class X students scored above 50 percent in the maths test (cf. 47 percent among CBSE and 59 percent of CISCE board students).

L ikewise, students of schools affiliated with the well-reputed examination board of Maharashtra (pop.112 million) — India’s most industrialised state — fared dismally, with scores below the national average in all subjects except MIL (modern Indian language — Marathi). Gujarat, where prime minister Narendra Modi claims to have wrought development miracles in his three terms as chief minister (2001-14), fares even worse with class X students scoring below the national average in all five subjects.

The quality of real, cognitive skills development high school education provided in several other states widely perceived to be educationally advanced, is not so great either. The maths and social science achievement of Kerala students, is below the national average. Himachal Pradesh students are also below the national average in all five tested subjects, as are students of schools affiliated with the Tamil Nadu state examination board. The poor performance of non-CBSE, CISCE schools in the latter two states which are reputed to be among the most educationally progressive, is especially disturbing.

In Tamil Nadu — an important national manufacturing industry hub — the poor test scores of class X state board school students is the outcome of persistent government interference with the primary-secondary education system. In 2010, the former DMK government abolished the vintage Matriculation examination board — unique to Tamil Nadu — which provided a well-designed contemporary syllabus to over 5,000 high-performing primary-secondary schools statewide, and introduced a common school system with rock-bottom learning and examination standards to create a level playing field for rural students.

The outcome of this and other ill-advised interventions (government-controlled tuition fees) is reflected in the low scores of state board students in NAS 2015. Ham-fisted, bull-in-china shop interference in primary-secondary education is also reflected in the dismal performance of class X state board students in West Bengal, once respected for its high quality school and collegiate education.

The most important insight derived from NCERT’s overdue NAS 2015 is that real learning and/or cognitive development of India’s secondary school students — particularly of children in state government schools which constitute an overwhelming majority of the country’s 1.4 million primary-secondaries — is inadequate as testified by the below 50 percent scores in all but native language standardised tests. And it’s a sobering thought that but for the much-derided ‘elite’ CISCE and CBSE schools, the average national score would have been much lower.

The high scores recorded by class X and XII students in formal state/national board exams which makes headline news, indicate that the majority of India’s children are adept at learning for school examinations. However, for tests which assess real learning and cognitive skills, they are pathetically unprepared, as evidenced by the dismal average scores of the country’s class X students in NAS 2015 (and PISA 2009). This contrast makes it clear that India’s archaic exam systems test students’ memorisation and exam preparation rather than conceptual learning and problem-solving skills.

NAS 2015 also explains why India’s higher education institutions have poor original research and innovation records, and why even India Inc hasn’t been able to produce killer products and services such as the jet engine, computers, cell phones, the internet or farm productivity breakthroughs.

The insufficiently articulated message of NAS 2015 is that the country’s best brains from the academy and industry need to become involved with the process of syllabus/curriculum design for primary-secondary — and higher — education. Unless radical reform of school teaching-learning and examination systems is urgently initiated, there’s a clear and present danger that India’s children with their obsolete knowledge and under-developed cognitive and problem-solving skills, will become the hewers of wood and drawers of water in the rapidly globalising economy of the 21st century.

India School Exam Boards Rankings 2016

Over a period of five months (November 2015-March 2016), a team of field researchers of the Delhi-based National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT) tested the real, unprepared learning outcomes of 277,416 class X students of 7,216 schools affiliated with the CISCE and CBSE and 31 state examination boards countrywide. The students were administered standardised tests in five subjects, viz English, maths, science, social science and major Indian language.
Based on the data provided by NCERT’s National Achievement Survey 2015, EducationWorld has suo motu ranked India’s school exam boards.

 

* Aggregate score of four subjects
** EducationWorld extrapolations
 Source: National Achievement Survey 2015 (Overall Findings — All Correct)

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