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Evaluation and assessment: The 'learning tower' of PISA

Evaluation and assessment: The 'learning tower' of PISA

Evaluation and assessment: The 'learning tower' of PISA
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By Anil Swarup  Jul 23, 2020 1:48 PM IST (Updated)

PISA itself is not the remedy for what ails school education and the manner in which it is being sought to be conducted will certainly not make any difference.

In an article published in the Indian Express on December 4, 2019, The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been explained. The author has also brought out the significance of PISA. The efficacy of PISA has been proven in a number of countries and it has indeed helped improve the learning outcomes in a few countries. Steps have been initiated in India to carry out this test in 2021. However, one has to seriously examine the following issues before taking this assessment forward:

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  1. The last PISA was done a few years ago. What happened to that report? What was the purpose? Did the test serve the desired purpose?
  2. Why is the proposed PISA being done in schools in Chandigarh and in Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS) schools only? Do the students of these schools represent those in the country? Is the sample size large enough? What is the purpose of the survey? Is it to roadshow the learning outcomes in these schools? Or, to improve learning outcomes in the country? If so, can an assessment in these schools lead to an improvement in other parts of the country?
  3. What has been the follow up of the National Achievement Survey (NAS) done in 2017 that had a sample size of around 2 million children?
  4. Is PISA suitable for a diverse country like India and will it help identify problems in learning in India that are not already known?
  5. Is it worthwhile spending so much money on the diagnosis that is by and large already known? Won’t it be better to focus on application to improve the learning outcomes?
  6. We have somehow come to be obsessed with seeking certificates from international agencies because we have come to believe (erroneously though) that “Yog” needs to become “Yoga” before it gets to be recognised in the country of its origin. That is perhaps the reason we have done everything to climb up the World Bank Ease-of-Doing-Business ladder and go to town when the bank “certifies” that we have climbed a few rungs.
    Ironically, even this assessment was initially carried out in India in the cities of Mumbai and Delhi where apparently there is hardly any “space” for industrial development. Thus, we had a piquant situation. Even though India continued to climb the World Bank ladder, industrial production and investments continued to grow at a pace that didn’t make us proud. The disconnect between such assessments and ground reality needs to be appreciated.
    Assessments and evaluations have an important role to play but we should first be able to establish the need and then identify the objective of such assessments clearly before going ahead. If the objective is to demonstrate to the world that we have already arrived or to junk the past, these assessments will serve only that purpose and will not lead to any improvement in the state of affairs.
    If the objective is to diagnose the causes of the malady, we must see whether the diagnosis is already available and whether the problem is more in terms of application than with diagnosis. In most of the cases, the diagnosis is available. We know why things are not working. The problem is that first, we don’t want to accept the existence of a problem and then want to use an assessment to prove that “all is well”. Accepting a failure, a mistake, or existence of a problem created by one’s failures/mistakes is not easy. Hence, we take a convenient path.
    In a number of cases, we do accept the existence of a problem but want to get our own diagnosis done, blissfully oblivious of some diagnosis that is already available or, even when acknowledging the availability of diagnosis, we consciously choose to dump the previous one. The National Education Policy (NEP) is a classic example of such an approach. It has been in the making for more than six years. There was a committee headed by late Mr T S R Subramanian that submitted a report. This report never saw the light of the day. This was followed by another committee, headed by Dr Kasturirangan. This report has also yet to see the light of the day.
    The problems relating to school education are pretty well known. Fortunately, most of the prescription also exists. However, what is missing is the application. Hence, the need to draw out an action plan for each state separately clearly outlining what needs to be done, how it will be done and who would do it. Plans for a couple of states are already been prepared. They need to be implemented and similar plans to be prepared for other states. If anything, baseline assessments of these states would be in order so as to assess the impact of these plans in the future.
    We need to look at the issues mentioned earlier before taking yet another plunge into the PISA pool. Assessment needs to be linked with action. Just an assessment, as envisaged under PISA, will be a waste of time and will perhaps meet the same fate as the last one. On the last occasion, states (Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh) considered to be doing well in the field of education were picked up for PISA but the results were not as anticipated.
    Consequently, the report was dumped. We don’t seem to have learned from that experience and are going ahead with a similar exercise picking up “better performing” schools. PISA itself is not the remedy for what ails school education and the manner in which it is being sought to be conducted will certainly not make any difference. So, why waste time, effort and money on this? How about putting in place an independent institution within the country that helps us assess the ground reality and enables us to take corrective measures periodically? NCERT had done a decent job in conducting the NAS in 2017. We need to build upon it.
    —Anil Swarup is former Secretary, Government of India and author of the book 'Not Just A Civil Servant'. The views expressed are personal
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