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Culturally compatible exams reform proposal

EducationWorld July 2021 | Teacher-2-teacher

Explosive grades inflation has jeopardised the credibility of school board exams. Therefore the criterion referenced assessment (CRA) system is receiving new traction, says Venunadhan Pillai

VENUNADHAN PILLAI

In many countries around the world including India, examination boards have cancelled or postponed exams because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This decision has not been taken lightly. Public board exam scores are the most important determinant for undergrad college and university admission.

Therefore with exams cancelled for the pandemic years, examination boards have been compelled to devise alternative methodologies to measure students’ learning outcomes. In the pandemic year 2019-20, national boards unable to conduct their full set of exams, permitted managements of affiliated schools to use their judgement to award grades/marks to school-leaving class X and XII students.

Some schools acted ethically and awarded grades/marks based on the historical progress of students. However, not a
few availed the opportunity to award highly inflated marks to their students. The resultant grades inflation has further jeopardised the suspect credibility of school exam boards. Therefore, the criterion-referenced assessment (CRA) system proposed by American educators Robert Glaser (1963) and Popham and Husek (1969) who devised this alternative assessment system to measure academic learning outcomes, is receiving new traction.

According to University of California academics, “criterion-referenced assessment is the process of evaluating learning outcomes of students against a set of pre-specified qualities or criteria, without reference to the achievement of others”. Under this methodology, students are expected to cross specified learning milestones without comparison with others in their cohort. On the other hand, the norm-referenced assessment system measures the performance of every student relative to others writing the same test.

Before 1835 when British educationist Lord Macaulay wrote his famous ‘minute on Indian education’ and uprooted “the beautiful tree” of India’s ancient gurukul school education system, although it was not described as such, the CRA system was normative in primary-secondary education in the subcontinent. The gurukuls prescribed a set of criteria, and attainment of these criteria resulted in the end of gurukul life. Significantly, the performance of students was unrelated to other students. The system didn’t rank students because the gurukul was not competitive but designed to prepare children to live their lives according to the four ashramas of the dharma concept, i.e, develop the physical, spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual capabilities of children combined with high sense of civic duty which
students would devotedly carry back to their families and communities.

This tried, tested and proven school education system flourished until 1813 when the East India Company was forced by London to accept the responsibility for education in its territories as a precondition of renewal of its charter. Following Macaulay’s minute, governance of the subcontinent was subsequently taken over by the Crown in 1857, and the norm-referenced assessment system of standardised tests which compared students’ performance interse was introduced. This learning outcomes-based assessment system prevailed, as the primary purpose of education became filtration due to limited seats in higher education and employment after graduation.

It’s instructive to note that as in India’s gurukuls, the CRA system was normative in ancient Greece, particularly Athens, the seat of learning of Greek civilisation. Much of the jargon used in contemporary education has Greek roots. Young boys in ancient Greece studied in an academy or schole. Trusted slaves known as pedagogues mentored the boys, lived in schools with children, monitored their progress and ensured they did their homework.

As in the Indian gurukul system, school students also learned reading, writing, reckoning (maths), art, music and warcraft. Interestingly, the Greeks divided human life into four segments — pais, ephebos, aner and geron — to represent childhood, youth, manhood, elders (gerontocracy) — much akin to the four ashramas. As in ancient India, the purpose of Greek education was to prepare children to learn appropriately in each stage of life. Students were exhorted to become kalakagathos — ideal persons — “who combine beauty and justice in a lifestyle that values fame, wealth, ability and virtue”. Unfortunately, girls’ education was relatively neglected.

The huge disruption caused to Indian education by the Covid-19 pandemic — schools and all education institutions have been shuttered for over 15 months — and cancellation of school-leaving board exams with which anyway there was growing dissatisfaction for unbridled grades inflation and encouragement of rote-learning, presents an occasion to jettison the British imposed norm-referenced school examination system and revert to the culturally compatible criterion-referenced assessment system in K-12 education. The benefits of CRA are self-evident and will present the nation with a holistically developed young workforce, and substantially reduce the stress-load of board exams for students. This is an exams reform proposal that needs wide and urgent debate.

(Dr. Venunadhan B. Pillai is executive principal, Vellore International School, Chennai)

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