In this tussle between private and government schools, we overlook the most devastating truth: That our children, irrespective of school, are simply not learning. Fewer than half of the fifh-graders who wrote an exam designed for the second grade got more than 30% of the questions right.

The great debate in education should not revolve, therefore, around scrapping the Class X board exams, as recently proposed by the human resource development minister Kapil Sibal; that pertains, in any case, only to a small percentage of Indian school students. Instead, the debate should wrestle with appropriate methods to test the students who leave our schools without learning how to read or write. Without such testing, there is little way of knowing what is going awry in Indian schools.

Loading video...

Why do these students get their fundamentals wrong? A key reason is that many households do not know the school quality that is on offer. We expect parents to pick the best schools for their child, but in reality, the school-level information and outcome measures to support an informed choice are not available. There is more information available, in fact, to those who are choosing a new television or cell phone than those choosing a school.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Also, unlike urban educated, middle-class parents; our rural counterparts, many of whom are not literate; are unable to gauge if their child has learnt anything at all and are unaware that better education is indeed possible. Our politicians, for their part, cannot see their efforts to improve schools translating into votes; they cannot claim credit and be rewarded for any attention that they pay to this issue, unlike say large-scale loan waivers or other benefits distribution programmes.

How do we address this then? In our view, as in the case of any other service, if something does not get measured, it does not get done. We acknowledge this when we run complex train systems across the country or when we provide healthcare services, but for some reason, when it comes to education, we run into a blind spot. We need good information systems to manage our schools, and this is impossible to achieve without proper measurement.

Click here for all Mint 2010 issue multimedia specials

As a first step, our students need to be tested annually on nationally administered standardized exams. These exams, unlike the one currently being discussed by the ministry of human resource development, are meant to assess those students in the left-tail of the distribution—those struggling to read and write. We should begin by ensuring minimum proficiency in basic skills for every child.

These exams must start early (say Class III) and cover three or four classes, so that they periodically assess a child’s learning. They should test basic mathematics and language, and at a level that is two to three grades below the relevant grade that students are in. They should be used to evaluate not children or teachers but individual schools, blocks and districts. High-performing districts should be able to distinguish themselves easily, and politicians associated with low-performing districts should feel the pressure to identify and correct problems. They should also be allowed to take credit in front of their electorate if a similar exam next year reveals an improvement in performance as a result of their interventions.

Information alone may not be enough to improve our schools, but data on which schools are failing to educate our children is necessary for parents to demand more effective options and for our politicians to respond to them. We need to shift the discourse from marks-versus-grades (a question for statisticians to resolve, not educationists) and optional board exams to the quality of the exams being used to test our children. Can we design more objective tests of learning than the ones currently used? Organizations such as Educational Initiatives in Ahmedabad are showing that this is indeed possible. Such well-designed exams can truly enhance the equity in our schooling system.

Nachiket Mor and Vidhya Muthuram are with the ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth.