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Ashish Dhawan: Assessment-led education reform

We must embrace a culture of data-driven decision making, where learning outcomes are the key indicators of quality in schools. We need standardised assessments of student learning

Ashish Dhawan 

Ashish Dhawan

The tenth Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) was released recently. It highlighted yet again that by the end of primary school, nearly half our children are unable to read Class 2 level text and nearly two-thirds fail at basic maths. ASER as a citizen-led survey has done an excellent job of bringing the issue of poor learning outcomes to the forefront of educational discourse in the country. However, we now need to build on it to promote large-scale student assessments that will give us useful data with which to measure and guide our education system.

Today, we evaluate our education system and formulate education policies based on input-based measures. Just as successful organisations do not evaluate their success based on input measures such as amount of raw material consumed or the qualification of employees, our education system cannot continue to measure success by the number of functional kitchens or qualified teachers in the system.

We must embrace a culture of data-driven decision making, where learning outcomes are the key indicators of quality in schools. We need standardised assessments of student learning outcomes that give us a strong, quantitative understanding of where we stand - at the national, state, district, school, student or subject topic level - and use this data to actively to measure our progress as a system and inform our education policies.

A rigorous and credible standardised assessment of student learning at the national level can provide a meaningful benchmark for our progress on education as a country and enable comparison of state performance. The National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has administered National Achievement Survey (NAS) - a full-length examination in language, mathematics and environment studies for a sample of students in Classes 3, 5, 7 and 8 in 31 states and territories - for over a decade. These surveys are conducted once every four years and presently there is a lead time of about two years in disseminating the results to the states.

Recently, in an encouraging move, NCERT enhanced the technical design of NAS as well as introduced modern analysis techniques that enable comparison of student performance over time. It is critical that we disseminate the results in a timely manner to states and districts, so this data can contribute effectively to the policymaking and planning processes.

While NAS can provide useful insights at a national level, state sample-based assessments can focus on regional nuances of each state's curriculum and pedagogical practices. The results from NAS should also be used as a credible benchmark by all states to track their relative performance.

The ministry of human resource development has taken the lead here by providing financial support to states for conducting state learning achievement surveys (SLAS). Some states such as Himachal Pradesh have conducted state-led student assessments in government schools, and have utilised this data to set learning improvement goals. However, many states lack the technical capability to build a robust large-scale assessment process and use results effectively to feed into their planning. We can further strengthen SLAS by extending it to include private schools and building the capacity of state teams to conduct, analyse and use results from these assessments to feed into their education decision making process.

Over the next five years, all states should migrate to census-based assessments that enable tracking the progress of every child while holding teachers, principals and school systems accountable for every child's learning. Simultaneously, teacher capacity must be built to use student assessment data collected periodically to guide everyday classroom instruction.

Further, we must create a culture of assessment-based reform by building the capacities of decision-makers in the education administration to understand these results and use them to create targeted improvement plans.

We can learn from Brazil which introduced Prova Brasil, a nationwide student assessment in 2005 to benchmark the performance of states, districts and schools and plan remediation strategies. Until 12 years ago, Brazil was ranked amongst the bottom of most international learning achievement surveys. Using data generated from Prova Brasil, that measures learning levels of children in Class 4 and 8 in language and mathematics, Brazil managed to break out of that norm.

As our nation prepares to implement Padhe Bharat, Badhe Bharat, which focuses on strengthening foundational skills of students such as early reading, writing, comprehension and mathematics, we should ensure integration of assessments as part of the programme. Assessment results must be used effectively to measure learning outcomes and be converted into actionable plans for improvement. It would be wonderful if the concern over our education system due to the ASER results converts into the use of data for targeted and meaningful improvements.

The writer is founder and CEO of Central Square Foundation, a venture philanthropy fund and policy think-tank focused on improving quality of school education and learning outcomes of children from low-income communities

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First Published: Sat, February 07 2015. 21:48 IST