Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The rote-learning trap

A very disturbing RISE study on the state of the high stakes high school assessment systems in India by Newman Burdett. Its verdict is damning, though not at all surprising,
Overall the CBSE examination papers are heavily biased to rote-learning, do not test higher- order skills, and actively discourage students who try and display them... they are almost exclusively assessing a large body of facts and intimate familiarity with text books that is of very questionable use... The papers from CBSE and Pakistan do not match in any meaningful way what is considered necessary or good education in any of the available benchmarks.
What is surprising is the magnitude of the problem and the fact that the quality is worse than in even countries like Uganda and Nigeria.  

The study classifies questions in each subject in the national-level standardised examinations based on recall (having to recall a fact or piece of knowledge), application (understanding that knowledge and applying it), and reasoning (critically analysing and evaluating facts and potentially putting those pieces of knowledge together in novel ways). It then seeks to identify the share of questions belonging to each category in the different subjects in each of the standardised examinations for all countries. 

While the PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS and other international assessment benchmarks focus more on application and reasoning, minimising or even avoiding recall, India's CBSE assessments for 10th and 12th Grades have no questions that test reasoning and are skewed towards recall.
Even those in the Level 2 category for Math is effectively reduced to a recall category given the repetition of questions (or at least their nature) over years. 

For reference, see the distribution for other major benchmarks...
... and for Alberta, Canada 
Achieving learning outcomes of desired levels will take time. A good place to start would be to signal intent and shape expectations by making the requisite changes to the assessment system itself. And it can start now.

I confess to having hitherto underestimated the depth to which our assessments have plunged and also the potential value of this as an important policy instrument in improving learning outcomes. This really is important and very useful practical lever to improve learning outcomes. 

Update 1 (02.01.2018)
Karthik Dinne has a very good suggestion,
The solution is to upgrade the quality of board exams but to avoid the political pressures during the transition, it would be good to initially conduct two versions (basic, advanced) of each subject, with the choice to the student to choose either. Gradually, one can work on bridging the gap between the two. The idea is that the advanced version will signal the higher expectations to schools and also creates demand from parents by providing them with an easily understandable metric gauge quality. Hopefully, this would lead to change in the status-quo. The splitting of the exam will also serve another problem of our board exam - the dual purpose of both certifying minimum standards and signaling the capability of students. The basic version can be taken by students who are interested only in getting the 10th certificate to demonstrate minimum competency.
Please also see his blogpost on this here.

1 comment:

Karthik Dinne said...

Several benchmark assessments suggest that even the students of Indian-high end private schools perform below international average. It is surprising, given that the high-end private schools are less likely to face constraints of public systems like lack of resources, weak governance etc.

My sense is that it's due to the poor quality of board exams. Board exams set expectations/standards and schools only teach to these standards thus translating the poor quality of board exams to poor learning practices even in high-potential schools.

The solution is to upgrade the quality of board exams but to avoid the political pressures during the transition, it would be good to initially conduct two versions (basic, advanced) of each subject, with the choice to the student to choose either. Gradually, one can work on bridging the gap between the two.

The idea is that the advanced version will signal the higher expectations to schools and also creates demand from parents by providing them with an easily understandable metric gauge quality. Hopefully, this would lead to change in the status-quo.

The splitting of the exam will also serve another problem of our board exam - the dual purpose of both certifying minimum standards and signaling the capability of students. The basic version can be taken by students who are interested only in getting the 10th certificate to demonstrate minimum competency.....

http://www.iterativeadaptation.in/2015/08/reforming-board-exams-in-india.html