Home / Politics / News /  New approach to primary education faces many tests

New Delhi: Sanjana Bhambhani, 9, has a vague idea of what a test is. She thinks hard before answering. “You get a sheet of paper," she says, and pauses, “they ask you to finish it off in one hour or something".

The reason why this Shri Ram School, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, student—ballet dancer, daughter of lawyers—does not know about tests is because she has never been tested.

Learning curve: Sanjana Bhambhani, with sister Saanvi, and their parents. The Bhambhanis claim that their children’s teachers at Shri Ram School, which has adopted the continuous assessment system, have helped them get to know their offspring better. Sudhanshu Malhotra / Mint

English teacher Ruchi Mehta writes: “Having internalized the basic spelling rules, Sanjana seldom makes errors even in independent writing." Sanjana’s profile says she actively collected funds for Bihar’s flood victims.

It is this type of assessment of primary school children (age group 5-11) that the National Council of Educational Research and Training, or NCERT, is trying to popularize among teachers of both private and government-run schools.

The organization’s director, Krishna Kumar, who revamped school curriculum in 2006, even taking on Parliament in the process, wants teachers to move away from examinations to continuous, daily assessment.

“Fifty per cent of children are not reaching Class VIII. So we are a very discouraging system," said Kumar, who has observed only a few schools using a child-centric approach to education. “The new perspective on education is that every child must succeed. Every child has some potential".

To guide teachers on how to switch over from the old test score-based system, NCERT has released source books or guidelines on assessment which ask teachers to prepare a child’s profile, maintain a portfolio of his work, and write qualitative or descriptive statement’s of a child’s work. The source books will be publicized and supplied to schools in the next two years.

Kumar does not have to look far for support, and opposition. Schools such as Shri Ram show it can be done but competitive parents, used to tracking their children’s progress in school through test scores, may defeat his intentions.

In a class of five-year-olds at Shri Ram, Saanvi, Sanjana’s sibling, is writing numbers till 89. Once the work is done, she will put hers away in a bag hanging at the back of her class marked with her name. This is her portfolio.

Her teacher Lakshmi Shankar pulls out all of Saanvi’s work. The portfolio will be shared with parents. Shankar also maintains a thick diary on her lessons; each has a comment on which children had problems with the lesson.

Government school reality

Almost echoing the NCERT chief’s views, teachers at Shri Ram School say they watch out against discouraging students.

“We are trained to write positively," said Manisha Bhaumik, who wrote Sanjana’s profile. “(Words such as) don’t, cannot and never are not used."

The teachers are sceptical about whether this system can be replicated in a large class size. Shri Ram School has 28 students per class, which makes it easy to identify and keep track of each child’s growth. Government schools often have large class sizes, sometimes going up to 50 students per class. They can also have different age groups studying in the same class.

Sandhya Paranjpe, professor at NCERT’s department of elementary education, said trials of the new assessment in government schools have met with success.

“In Orissa and Jharkhand, children were keeping their own portfolios," said Paranjpe, discussing the trials. “(This) gives an opportunity to the child to assess himself."

Government school teachers who participated in the field trial conducted from November 2007 to April 2008, said they enjoyed the new evaluation system but state policies do not permit them not to take tests.

“Children stop speaking when you tell them there is a test. They will not tell (an answer) even if they know," said Anubhuti Pareek, a teacher at Government Primary School, Badi Ki Dhani, 11km from Jaipur, in a phone interview. “Children are very scared of tests."

Pareek and a colleague teach all subjects in the 40-student school which conducts biannual examinations as well as marks students on written work.

NCERT’s Paranjpe said field trials will start impacting policy only through advocacy. It is also when teachers give feedback that policymakers will wake up.

The Right to Education Bill, which has reached Parliament, proposes the evaluation procedure “laid down by an academic authority to be specified by the appropriate government" should keep a child free from fear and consider continuous evaluation.

Parental expectations

Schools that do test young students say parents’ expectations are the most difficult to meet when they give out test scores.

At privately-run Apeejay School, Noida, principal N.N. Nayyar shows his scribbled notes in a diary from a meeting with a parent who demanded students be given more homework.

Apeejay marks primary school students twice in a term on the basis of worksheets, followed by a term-end exam. The marks of two terms are compiled into grades.

The school says parents regularly demand to know why their child has not done as well as they expected.

“The score of the child has become a prestige issue for parents," said Nayyar.

The school’s primary section head, Manju Thareja, said she regularly reassures parents that some children need time to pick up. She said it is parents, and not students, who stress about tests. “(For students) it is part of every day routine", said Thareja.

Parents are divided when it comes to tests. Those in support say exams are a reality children will eventually have to face.

Monica Gulati, a homemaker, said tests help her 10-year-old daughter get good study habits. “They have to go through competitive exams. Later on, (it will be) difficult to get into a regular study pattern", said Gulati.

Gulati’s daughter Deepika, who attends Apeejay School, Noida, said she compares her grades with those of her friends. “Yes, I like doing that," said Deepika. “If I don’t get good grades, I realize I have to study harder and get better grades. It is like an inspiration".

But some parents reject the idea of competition among very young children. Rajat Banerji pulled his seven-year-old daughter out of school (not Apeejay) to avoid such an environment.

“Our education system is too competition-oriented", said Banerji, who works as corporate communications head for Amway India Enterprises Pvt. Ltd and, helped by his wife, has begun home-schooling his daughter. “It throws kids into competition even before they realize their strengths or weaknesses".

The Bhambhanis say their children’s teachers have helped them get to know their offspring better. But the two lawyers, who are relatively relaxed parents, are not above giving surprised glances when Sanjana replies to a what-will-you-be-when-you-grow-up question with: “I don’t know."

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