A closer look at the purpose of assessment in the Indian context
Assessment plays an important role in ensuring the quality of education. It provides education stakeholders with useful information to understand if the means and opportunities have been helpful for students to attain the desired knowledge, skills, and dispositions.
Dr. Shilpi Banerjee works as a faculty member in School of Continuing Education at Azim Premji University. She has a background in Engineering with a specialization in Educational Assessment. Her research interests include development of feasible quality assessment prototypes for classroom purposes, assessment design and statistical evaluation of large-scale assessment data. She is also involved in designing and offering courses in various aspects of assessment to teacher educators, education functionaries, practitioners, and MA Education students.
Educational assessment can range anywhere from the use of large-scale standardized achievement tests, to a question that a teacher poses to a student in a classroom. It can be a question by a teacher on the concept of photosynthesis or the addition of two numbers in a class, or it can be two students interacting with each other about making sense of some specific scientific observation. Assessments range on a continuum from ongoing and informal to formal and periodic, like the end of chapter quiz or annual exam or standardized achievement test. In each of these scenarios, the assessment is serving a different purpose and can be considered as an activity to get information about where a student is with respect to educational outcomes.
With so many and varied purposes, assessment plays an important role in ensuring the quality of education. School education intends to develop in the students, certain knowledge, skills, and dispositions which are guided by the larger aims of education. Quality school education must provide the means and opportunities to enable students to achieve these desired aims of education. Assessment provides education stakeholders with useful information to understand if the means and opportunities have been helpful for students to attain the desired knowledge, skills, and dispositions.
Assessment has been used for various purposes over the past few decades. In practice, these purposes overlap. A few important questions that are pertinent are: how have the assessment practices changed with evolving societal needs; what are the purposes that assessment serve in ensuring quality education and; can an assessment which is designed for one purpose fit another? Therefore, it is worthwhile to first identify the actual purpose of assessment and then, design assessments so as to reap the true power of assessment in improving students’ learning.
History of assessment
In the past, across cultures, many religious groups-initiated children in into religious education with the hope of perpetuating religious learning and values. Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, Christian monasteries and even Tibetan monasteries were sites for religious learning. Learning while living in gurukuls and other such spaces was the conventional education system in ancient India. Assessments in these ashram-based educational institutes were orally administered and children were expected to reproduce what had been taught, which were predominantly religious scriptures, skills and values. The purpose of the assessment was to assist the child to learn and perform better.
In the early 18th century, most of the examinations happening around the world centred around selection and certification. The school acted as a social institution reproducing the ideas and thoughts of society to maintain social stratification.
The British government laid the foundation of the modern Indian education system. During the early 20th century Colonial India too was impacted by the changes in learning taking place around the world. Teaching was limited to classrooms and assessments were in the form of external examinations. The examinations for promotion to higher grades were introduced. During the same time, committees like The Indian University Commission (1902) Calcutta University Commission (1917-19), Hartog Committee (1929) and Sargent Plan (1944) were set up to reform the examination system to meet the needs of the society. These committees felt that the examinations were focused on selecting students for university education and provided no preparation for students who would take up industrial or technical professions. Therefore, the education system underwent several reforms after independence.
Quality school education must provide the means and opportunities to enable students to achieve these desired aims of education. Assessment provides education stakeholders with useful information to understand if the means and opportunities have been helpful for students to attain the desired knowledge, skills, and dispositions.Dr. Pranalee Sharma is a faculty member in School of Continuing Education at Azim Premji University. She is a PhD from University of Delhi in Human Development and Childhood Studies. She specializes in Child development with a special focus on assessing socio-emotional learning in children. Her areas of interest are developing a range of qualitative and quantitative data and research techniques for assessment of socio-emotional skills in children.
Later, the practices and approaches of assessment shifted from the assessment conducted for certification and selection to formative assessment due to various historical, political and societal reasons. The following section describes each of these purposes by looking at its function, approach, nature, timing, usage, limitations and stakeholders.
Assessment for certification
Assessments for certification are formal in nature and are conducted by an accreditation body. These certify and confirm the attainment of certain knowledge, skills and dispositions in a student. There are three national boards – Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) and National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) and other state boards which conduct board examinations for students in classes 10 and 12. The NEP recommends having one or more boards of assessment in every state to conduct the assessment for the school-leaving certificate and certify the same.
Certification examination results are used to predict students’ performance in their targeted job sector, therefore, used as a criterion for selecting or rejecting a student aspiring for a particular job. This kind of assessment is summative in nature and is conducted at the end of an academic year. The question papers for board examinations are designed following a systematic and confidential process. Question paper setters follow a standard process to identify important constructs to be assessed, design a balanced blueprint which focuses on assessing a range of cognitive skills and develop questions in alignment to the blueprint. These assessments are treated as criterion referenced as students’ performances are measured against previously defined secondary and senior secondary level objectives. The function of such assessments is not to compare students with one another. There are often more than one set of question papers to prevent cheating during examination. Since the answer sheets are evaluated centrally, standard marking schemes are also developed for each question.
Board examinations have very high stakes for students as on the basis of their result, students are eligible for their future choice of educational stream/career. These examinations are the culmination of the entire learning process that unfolds during the years in school. This late-stage assessment subjects’ students to enormous stress, much of which is not justified. Because of this unnecessary stress and fear, NEP recommends eliminating board examinations and replacing them with modular assessments for each subject that can be taken anytime between class 9 to 12.
Also, the outcome of board examinations is not just the measure of students’ learning and performance, it speaks of the effectiveness of the education process during their years in school. Unfortunately, students focus only on a few subjects like Mathematics, Science, Language and Social Science which help them score well in the board examination. Though subjects like art and vocational skills are included in the curriculum, no weightage is given to them in the board examination, because of which, students pay less attention to these and concentrate on subjects which define board exam scores.
Because of the high stakes associated with these examinations, students often modulate learning based on what will be assessed which, in turn, moves students’ focus from real understanding, thinking, analysing and doing (NEP, 2020).
Assessment for selection
This kind of assessment helps with the selection while choosing students for a further course or for attaining scholarship or employment – which means this follows the right people on the bus and wrong people off phenomena. This is also an example of using assessment to predict how individual student will benefit from further study or perform in chosen employment.
In school education, we have two kinds of selection assessments – assessment to receive scholarships and entrance examination for applying to higher grades/ studies. In India, there are various school-level private and government scholarships, such as the National Talent Search Examination (NTSE), CBSE Single Girl Child Scholarship and ISRO Young Scientist Program. The benefits obtained by the students after qualifying these scholarship examinations vary from getting concession in tuition fees, receiving free books, coverage of higher studies fees, etc. Another kind of selection assessment is conducted after class 12 for admission into specialized streams, like Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for engineering, National Aptitude Test in Architecture (NATA) for architecture, Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) for law, and National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for medicine, etc.Again, a standardized approach is followed to design question papers for these. Here, the question paper is aligned to the objectives of future academic stream/job which a student is aspiring for. The challenge here is to design a valid and reliable question paper to support selection decisions (Brookhart & Nitko, 2014).
This kind of assessment ranks students in order of merit based on their performance in the test instrument, therefore, these are norm-referenced. The purpose here is to differentiate between the students, comparing one with another. With a large number of students, performance in such assessments leads to the ‘bell curve’ (Freeman & Lewis, 1998) – the assumption that most of the students are clustered around the average value and the remaining small number of students over- or under-achieve.
A typical spread of marks from a norm-referenced assessment
Assessment to support teaching and learning
This kind of assessment has always been the dominant one in school education. The purpose of this assessment is to systematically improve the quality of student learning through improved programs, curricula and teaching (Gagne & Beard, 1978).
The first step in this cycle is developing and understanding learning outcomes which represent what students will know or be able to do at the end of a topic/chapter/unit/course. Learning outcomes are very critical for determining the teaching methodologies, learning activities and assessment schemes for the successful transaction of concepts in each subject. Learning outcomes are defined as assessment standards indicating the expected levels of learning that children should achieve for that class (GOI, 2017)]. Having a clear understanding of learning outcomes helps a teacher to plan, conduct and use assessment well.
Dynamic teaching-learning cycle
The second step is designing teaching and learning activities to help students attain the learning outcomes. Formative assessment is integrated with the teaching-learning process and is conducted throughout the teaching. It is designed to assist the learning process by providing feedback to students, which can be used to identify their strengths and weaknesses and provide scaffolding to improve their learning. Therefore, this type of assessment is also called, assessment for learning. Since students’ performance in this kind of assessment is not graded, therefore, these assessments have very low stakes for students.
Students play an active role in formative assessment along with the teacher. The assessment which is conducted by the student himself/herself is called, self-assessment. It is a process in formative assessment during which students reflect on the quality of their work (self-monitoring), judge the degree to which it reflects explicitly stated learning outcomes (self-judgement) and revise accordingly (self-revision) (Gipps, 1999). Metacognition is central to self-assessment; where the student consciously takes control of specific cognitive skills, such as checking understanding, predicting outcomes, planning activities, managing time, and switching to different learning activities. Students feel more motivated and confident to learn when they themselves have taken charge of learning with necessary scaffolding provided by the teacher. Since assessment happens here as learning occurs, it is also called, assessment as learning.
The third step is to conduct a summative assessment to measure the attainment of learning outcomes and report that to students, parents and administrators. In a classroom scenario, it generally occurs at the conclusion of a topic/chapter/unit/course and is also called, assessment of learning. Summative assessment is designed and conducted by teachers. They are typically used to assign marks or grade and therefore, have high stakes for students.
Several assessment techniques which include test, activities, projects, worksheets are used to conduct summative assessments. Summative assessment aggregates all the evidences of learning up to a given point (mid-term or end-term) to make a judgement about a student’s learning level through an evaluation which is based on marks/ grades.
Students learn better if learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities and assessment are in alignment. Both formative and summative assessments play very important roles as formative assessment helps to find out whether teaching and learning activities helped students attain the learning outcomes and summative assessment aims to measure students’ attainment of learning outcomes, thereby, providing an index of learning. Increased emphasis on formative assessment will result in better performance in summative assessment.
Assessment for accountability
To ensure the effectiveness of school education, a periodic assessment must be designed – not just for the student but for the entire education process. Such assessments, if administered properly, provide a view of the health parameters of the education process, at a stage when if flaws are detected, interventions and corrective measures can be taken at the systemic level. Large scale assessments are precisely such instruments which help the education system introspect about its own health and effectiveness.
These are administered to a large number of students in a district, state or country – a representative sample of students is selected for administration. These are conducted at state, national and international levels. The primary purpose of such assessments is to ensure accountability, that is, if the inputs (teaching and learning, school facilities, curriculum, programs, etc.) are leading to the right output (students’ performance and outcomes). Since such tests are administered to a large number of students, these mostly consist of multiple-choice questions which are amenable for automatic evaluation. These tests are administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another, such as pre-primary to primary-class 3, primary to upper primary-class 5, upper primary to secondary-class 8 and secondary to higher secondary-class 10. Conducting the test during the transition stages helps in determining students’ learning levels and identifying appropriate remedial intervention. These tests are standardized in nature, that is, there is uniformity of content, questions and procedure in scoring, administering and interpreting test results. Uniformity enables comparison of students’ performance across different parts of the country. Mostly, these tests are conducted annually to obtain information on the current levels of students’ achievement and to monitor possible changes over time.
International assessments provide information about an education system in relation to one or more other systems. These assessments help in the understanding of global trends and evolving systems in education. Results of an international assessment are used by individual countries to carry out their own within-country analyses.
The focus of the national level assessments is reporting and tracking long term trends across states, location (urban/ rural), cycle of administration, content and skill areas for each subject with respect to class-wise learning outcomes (Ministry of Education, 2017). State-level assessments help in providing evidence of the performance of teachers, administrators, schools and districts relative to established learning outcomes and also help in diagnosing strengths or weaknesses with respect to certain content or skill area for a subject and are, thereby, used in making appropriate changes in teaching and learning.
In India, several such assessments are carried out at the national and state levels. The National Achievement Survey (NAS) is conducted by National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) annually at the national level in a representative sample of schools from all the district government and government-aided schools for class 3, 5, 8 and 10 in Languages, Environmental Science, Science, Social Science and Mathematics. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is the largest citizen-led, household assessment in the world conducted by Pratham with children of 6 -4 years of age for literacy and numeracy content domains.
Large scale assessments in India
In addition to this, NEP 2020 recommends conducting census-based State Assessment Survey (SAS) for developmental purposes to evaluate independently state accountability plans and checking what is working best in each state.
Well-deigned and properly used large-scale assessments provide data about school education outcomes and can, thereby, assist policymakers, administrators, schools and teachers in ensuring that all students are offered what they need to meet the established learning outcomes and to make appropriate improvements in teaching, curriculum, and other program elements. Therefore, it is important to regularly disseminate data and related information from large-scale assessments to relevant stakeholders in order to gain their understanding, participation and support. Teachers should be provided adequate time and assistance to interpret data for the purpose of improving instruction; they should be given assistance in using teaching strategies that improve the learning outcomes for all the students.
This kind of assessment lacks diagnostic value for individual students as it is conducted with a sample of students and is mainly summative in nature – generally conducted at mid-or end-term. As NEP 2020 recommends, these assessments must not be used to evaluate/grade individual teachers, students, and/or schools, and they should not be used as a means of tracking or labelling individual students or schools. Therefore, these assessments have very low stakes for students as they do not impact their final grades or percentage.
Despite several policy initiatives to improve the assessment practice in schools, students’ learning levels measured against class-specific learning outcomes in assessments conducted for accountability purposes, like NAS and ASER, indicate poor average learning levels across different classes. Average learning levels are very poor and there is a dip in the scores as students’ transition from primary to upper primary and from upper primary to secondary (Chomal, Banerjee, 2019).
School should not prepare students for just one kind of assessments, instead it should prepare them for life by providing them with meaningful educational experiences for attaining the higher aims of education.
Each purpose of assessment plays an equally important role to support quality education. It is important to design the right kind of assessment based on its purpose and usage. The entire purpose of assessment is lost when there is a misalignment between the purpose of the assessment and the usage of its results. For example, a certification assessment used for the rank ordering of students or formative assessment used for grading purposes. In the current era of high-stakes assessment, there is considerable pressure to focus only on student performance and minimal on the extent to which self-assessment is taught, experienced, and encouraged. However, it is important to understand here that students’ performance in assessments conducted for accountability, certification and selection purposes will enhance only when the formative assessment is practiced to tightly integrate pedagogy, learning and assessment in classrooms. School should not prepare students for just one kind of assessments, instead it should prepare them for life by providing them with meaningful educational experiences for attaining the higher aims of education.