The CBSE has prepared a tabulation scheme to determine the marks that students of Class 12 will be awarded in this pandemic year, upon completion of schooling. How reliable is such a scheme against the backdrop of the digital divide, and can it be improved? In a conversation moderated by G. Ananthakrishnan , Anita Rampal and Uday Gaonkar discuss the road ahead for assessing students. Edited excerpts:
Were the students adequately prepared for the assessment system proposed by CBSE?
Anita Rampal: I know in Delhi, for instance, students who could not even access online classes. So, for them, it’s important that CBSE is looking at assessment over a longer period, not just this pandemic year, and what marks they got in Class 10 and 11. They have yet to see how their schools are going to be marking them for their internal assessment in Class 12. I have spoken to some who did not understand much of what happened in Class 12 because they barely had a shared phone between the siblings or not even that. This has been a very challenging year. I think this was the fairest that the CBSE could have worked out at the given moment, especially since it was done very late and under court orders.
You would have a different experience in a rural setting, Mr. Gaonkar. What do you think?
Uday Gaonkar: I’m working in a state-run school for Classes 8 to 10. Last year, only 80-85 days of physical classes were held. Normally, the academic year should have 200 working days. The syllabus was reduced by 30%. So, that is a mismatch: school days were reduced to 50% and the syllabus cut only by 30%. We were forced to teach hurriedly. Meaningful learning involves a lot of interaction between students, teachers and the community. In this scenario, we are just forced to complete the syllabus. The Government of Karnataka tried broadcasting classes: video classes were broadcast on Doordarshan and even on YouTube, but ours is a very remote location in a rural area. Only 30% students have smartphones. Others have keypad phones. Students found it very difficult to get access to those YouTube videos.
On TV and the Internet, what’s their efficacy in terms of pedagogy?
Anita Rampal: Very poor. For decades, we have struggled to move beyond just chalk and talk and staring at the blackboard. That itself is not pedagogy. We seem to be losing a lot of the work that we may have done in the last few decades. Learning happens through discussions with others, through engagement with activities or with the world around you.
Now, asking students to stare at a screen is worse than even staring at a blackboard. This is not learning; this is just a kind of coaching. You have learnt something, but you are told that you can have a person or a machine to help you revise it. Digital coaching has been pushed relentlessly by the industry of education technology. This time they really had it big. You can see the kinds of billionaires who have come out of this industry. For at least two decades, most educators in India have tried to resist the pressures of the computer industry which said that you must have smart boards and computers in the classroom. We have said that these can only be add-ons in places where there are essential resources for actual teaching and learning; they cannot be a substitute for activities and discussions among learners.
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The pandemic has not only devastated the lives and livelihoods of a majority of our children, but has exacerbated divides. During a board exam, we know that children from disparate backgrounds take the exam and are marked for the same questions, irrespective of the kinds of resources, schools and teachers they’ve had. Now, this is an added layer to that divide. And this digital divide seems to be overwhelming, so much so that the government is bringing out guidelines on home learning and homeschooling, almost putting the responsibility on the learner and the family instead of the system.
That is going to be damaging. When the Right to Education (RTE) law was enacted, the Ministry had appended to the Act a significant note, a justification for each of the clauses. One important justification was that if a child is not able to learn, it is not the failure of the child but of the system. Today, what is going to happen when the system is going to take responsibility for all these lapses, for the inability to connect with our students? We need to not just push the syllabus, but also emotionally support their agency, give them the confidence to continue despite all the odds, because many students are going to drop out after the pandemic is over. So, it’s not just a matter of what marks we will give them for Class 12.
What can feasibly be done this year?
Anita Rampal: All the State Boards should make sure they’ve looked at assessments, at what students have done. I don’t like the term ‘learning loss’ because again, it puts the responsibility on the student. I think the youngest children have learned a lot. They’ve learned the difficult lessons of life, so we shouldn’t be calling it learning loss. Boards are very distant, remote entities. Schools should really make that intimate and compassionate connect. First, look at students and support them, relieve them of their traumas and anxieties, and then assess them over a longer period. Look at their Class 10, Class 11, look at all the work and projects that they may have done, or can do even now, and then assess them. Of course, if students have not had online classes at all, the school will need to take a call on that: how do they do an internal assessment? I think they will have to be empathetic, careful and fair. The RTE Act says that up to age 14, there should be continuous and comprehensive assessment, but the system never heeded that. What it did, instead, was a poor substitute, what the CBSE called continuous assessment. We need a rethinking on continuous assessment. It’s not just a mark on a paper. It is the assessment of abilities — students’ expression, writing, observation, ability to critically think and experiment.
During the pandemic how can you provide instruction to students?
Uday Gaonkar: Last year, the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samithi (BGVS), most of them teachers, started Vatar Sala, a neighbourhood school [in Karnataka]. Students here interact even during a lockdown period and because they know each other, they interact, they share one playground. We thought that one teacher or volunteer will help the students learn. One activity that we have developed is for children to collect electricity bills from their friends in their neighbourhood and transfer that data into another table for that information to be tabulated. They use that information to get various inferences, for example, per capita electricity consumption in that area. We have developed worksheets and activity sheets this year also.
The system is set around one school-leaving examination. Is the situation conducive to having a standardised exam, besides entrance exams?
Anita Rampal: Exams meant as entrance exams are selective. You have a large number of people, you have fewer seats. But a school exam does not have to be selective. It should be a school-leaving exam based on what you have learnt right through the period or right through two years. That is much more healthy. It does not have to be standardised, which is never a very good format for children because education is really rooted in a child’s environment. The more decentralised the assessment, the more rigorous and better it is, the more it discerns what students have learned. You could have a common textbook, but the best way to assess is to be more decentralised. The RTE Act says don’t take a centralised assessment for selecting/ admitting students into school or for any other purpose. All our assessment theories tell us that better assessment is done in a trusting environment. We have statistical ways of seeing that these are not unfair, or can be moderated in ways that do not get skewed towards any particular State or district or school.
CBSE has stipulated results committees in schools. Is that a sound approach, with 40% of the marking at Class 12 level?
Anita Rampal: It is okay to have some external component of the committee, some people who can understand assessment and who also look at fair distributions. For instance, in our university assessment for the four-year B.El.Ed teacher education programme run by many colleges under our faculty, there is a large component of internal assessment. We have a good system of moderation, where all colleges actually look at samples of work, of their highest and lowest marks, and then decide whether they fall within a fair marking distribution. If some college marking is skewed, those marks are moderated by consensus. This is a challenging process, it needs time and patience and careful rigour, which could be developed within the school system.
Mr. Gaonkar, could you tell us about your report on education reform?
Uday Gaonkar: BGVS submitted a report last year to the committee set up by the government on online classes. Our experience with Vatar Sala was very helpful. We gave some data collected by a national sample survey about Internet access and availability of devices. We said that it is injustice to have online classes for school students because it will not reach all the students, and recommended some paper-based activity sheets. Even learning kits were tried.
What did you find from the survey and recommend as remedy?
Uday Gaonkar: Of the 70% of the students living in rural areas, only 6%-7% or even 2% have computers at home — laptops or computers — and only 10%-12% know how to handle the computer and Internet. Students who don’t have a mobile phone have to share the phones of their friends. Most of the students have only basic keypad mobiles, no smartphones, and more than 20% of the students don’t have a mobile phone. So, we said that is unjust. Even though Chandana television reaches more than 60%-70% students, these are PPTs (power point presentations) without any interaction. That is not learning.
If conditions don’t really improve for children to go back to physical classes, what would you do for 2022?
Anita Rampal: We should be prepared to run schools only when there are lean periods between COVID-19 waves when it is safe. And in that time, try and maximise the time to keep them engaged, not just give them memory-based information. More importantly, we need to keep in touch with them at home. Maybe give them some handouts, worksheets. Assessment should be closely tied to learning.
Uday Gaonkar: This year is an opportunity to look into this matter differently. Board exams made the schools tuition centres. Now, we can make schools learning spaces again by providing real experiences rather than virtual experiences. Students gather knowledge in a fragmented way, whether it is language or the sciences or maths. Classes are fragmented age-wise. We can club them as far as possible and children can learn with their elders’ help. It is time to rethink school education.
Uday Gaonkar is a teacher in a rural school in Karnataka’s public system who has worked in science teaching and learning; Anita Rampal is Professor and former Dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University