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Student Learning Assessments- A key to reforming education?


Bhavesh Gor

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Student Learning Assessments- A key to reforming education?

“It is important to identify the ailment correctly before prescribing, let alone administering, a medicine.”

 The recently released National Education Policy document by the Indian government, advocates for assessment led-reform, and the word ‘assessment’ finds itself mentioned more than 40 times in the 40-page+ document.[1] Governments, international organizations, and other stakeholders are increasingly recognizing the importance of assessment for monitoring and improving student learning and achievement levels. However, many consider assessments a bad word, and their utility for education reform remains debated. Depending on the nature of the participation by different stakeholders in the assessment process, it can evoke ranging from- necessary, evil, anxiety, pressure, competition, success, failure, judgment, feedback, fairness, standards, accountability, bureaucracy and drudgery, to mention a few.

This blog article is based on my experience and work with Educational Initiatives on Large Scale Assessments, it aims to provide counter-arguments to common criticisms[2] on assessments.

  1. Assessment causes anxiety for children, parents and teachers.

There exist many forms of assessment to serve a wide variety of functions including grading, selection, diagnosis, mastery, guidance and prediction. All assessments are not necessarily high-stakes, stressful, or for selection and evaluation. Many assessments advocated for reform are assessment for learning and are low stakes for students (no direct implication on test-takers)/ These assessments are not to ‘stress’ the child but to meaningfully ‘care’ for the child’s learning by paying attention to it.

For instance, low-stakes diagnostic assessments are an example of assessment for learning. These support teachers and administrators to measure student ‘understanding’ of concepts to be followed up with targeted instruction (and additional resources where necessary) to bridge learning gaps at an early stage.

  1. Assessments narrow the focus of education.

Emphasis on measurable learning does not mean ignoring other outcomes of education, such as physical, civic, social-emotional, civic, or artistic development. Focusing on learning—and on the educational quality that drives it—is more likely to lead to other desirable outcomes. Conditions that allow children to spend two or three years in school without learning to read a single word or to reach the end of primary school without learning two-digit subtraction are not conducive to achieving the higher goals of education.

A study in Andhra Pradesh, that rewarded teachers for gains in measured learning in math and language led to improved outcomes not just in those subjects, but also in science and social studies—even though there were no rewards for improvement in the latter two subjects.[3]

  1. We are over-testing our students with an increase in assessments.

Contrary to popular notion, evidence points out there is being too little reliable measurement of learning in our schools as opposed to too much measurement. A lack of right measurement means that we would often be flying blind—and without even agreement on the destination.

While it is true that excessive testing can narrow the intellectual development of high-achieving students, the opposite is true at low levels of learning. There is also evidence to suggest that testing helps with processing learned materials and even in the learning of untested materials

Research[4] in cognitive science and psychology shows that testing, done right, can be an effective way to learn. Taking tests can produce better recall of facts and a deeper understanding than an education devoid of exams. High-quality tests that have been developed to assess how well students have met curricular expectations/goals often drive in-depth learning for students. 

  1. Assessments do not test real knowledge, understanding or application of what they have learnt.

At the heart of a good assessment are “good questions” – questions that test for understanding and application rather than merely testing recall of facts or procedures mentioned in the textbook. Assessments with good questions can be powerful tools to inform pedagogical practices and policy. Educational assessment, which can look very simple on the surface but is a highly technical field with many dimensions. Building technical rigor and institutional capacity on designing assessments are the solution, not discarding assessments.

Student Learning Assessments- A key to reforming education?

Figure 1The question should test understanding of the concept taught and not focus on facts. (On the left is a straight-forward question, on the right is a question testing for understanding.

  1. Many assessments like PISA are not useful as they are out-of-context/unfamiliar.

It is believed that Indian students are learning well, but because in tests like PISA they got questions of a type they were not familiar with, they could not perform well in the assessment.[5] This is not true. While familiarity with the questions may have played a small role, the real reason for poor performance is the extremely low learning levels in our larger school system. Several studies, including many conducted by EI[6], have shown similar results.

As opposed to the regular assessments done in India, PISA doesn’t test a student’s memory or curriculum-based knowledge but aims to judge the student’s competency in reading, mathematics and science. A well-framed question in geometry is not merely a test of knowledge of geometrical concepts, but also tests a student’s ability to analyze, logically deduce and draw conclusions.

Student Learning Assessments- A key to reforming education?

Figure 2Mathematical Literacy, OECD, PISA 2003

Student Learning Assessments- A key to reforming education?

Figure 3 Question from ASSET, Educational Initiatives

  1. “Just weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter.”

Assessing children is only a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. There is no guarantee that measuring learning outcomes will by itself lead to an improvement. However, it is almost certain that not measuring outcomes will encourage the system to continue on its current course with poor transformation of inputs into outcomes. Evidence[7] points to the fact that organizations (especially bureaucracies) are more likely to deliver on outcomes that get measured.

The author acknowledges that while assessment is not the ultimate answer to all the issues in education, but it may truly hold they key to the answers. In our striving to provide quality education for all, assessments help in guiding two things –1. where we stand and 2. where we need to go. Knowing these things can provide focus and stimulate action, to achieve the right of our children to learn and an education system they truly deserve.


[1] https://www.mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/NEP_Final_English_0.pdf

[2] Unpacked: The Black Box of Indian School Education-Karthik Dinne;

Priorities for Primary Education Policy in India’s 12th Five-year Plan, Karthik Muralidharan

[3] Muralidharan, K., & Sundararaman, V. (2011). Teacher Performance Pay: Experimental Evidence from India. Journal of Political Economy,

[4] A New Vision for Testing” in Scientific American 313, 2, 54-61 (August 2015) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0815-54

[5] http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/poor-pisa-score-govt-blames–disconnect–with-india/996890

[6] EI conducts large scale assessments (including ASSET for private schools and state and national learning studies for government schools) which are diagnostic (providing insights on student learning gaps) and also benchmark student learning across schools, states and countries. Over the past two decades, EI has undertaken over 80+ projects with 50+ partners (16+ languages, 40+ detailed studies published) across geographies, socio-linguistic backgrounds in India and abroad, for more than 10 million students across different grades.

[7] Wilson, James Q. 1989. Bureaucracy. New York: Basic Books.







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