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NEP: Assessment is the key to unlock better learning

NEP brings in a well-defined assessment architecture that can prove transformative

The new National Education Policy (NEP) has demonstrated a clear will to move the needle away from the old world of learning. This has been highlighted with the triad of multidisciplinary higher education, multiple options at senior school and multiple chances of success in school leaving examinations. The focus on foundational learning, the inclusion of the very young into formal learning and the emphasis on holistic learning are goals that are baked into the policy. Even as institutional and structural reforms such as better teacher training, separation of operations and governance, and more, do their bit, the hidden key to change lies in assessment.

Pragmatically, the education train in India is driven by exams and marks. All teaching is to the test, changes only in response to the key incentive—marks in the test. The NEP gets that and upends the rote learning cart by calling for questions to now test for application of knowledge. This small shift is the lever needed for change. But it cannot do it alone. It is accompanied by both structural and institutional elements that will support the transformation.

Another seemingly small but structural change is the report card, which brings back the best of the CCE (continuous and comprehensive evaluation) with holistic assessment. This supports more well-rounded activities during school time since they are necessary for such assessment. By reducing the importance of summative marks in the report card, it helps pivot the change while also keeping traditionalists happy. This approach has been proved to be successful in many progressive private schools who have been doing this for a while. Indeed, many of the suggestions of the NEP are not as impractical as teachers fear. Most have been practised and sustained in elite schools who sought and worked through different approaches in their quest for quality education. The focus on reducing pressure at the board level, bringing choice of subjects, and system checks rather than individual scores are all an attempt to make assessments meaningful to student progress. The intent is to unlock better quality learning by using assessment in all three forms - for learning, of learning and as learning.

Gently layered on top of the current assessment structure is the voluntary examination offered by the National Testing Agency (NTA), which itself is a fairly new institution. This could be used by universities to admit students, they suggest. This examination, only a whiff of a suggestion right now, sits at the fulcrum of the education system in India. Done right, it has the power to recalibrate both school outcomes and higher education opportunities. For this to happen, both the content of this examination, and its acceptance across universities will be critical.

Institutional changes are the third layer that supports this proposed transformation. The NTA is already in place. A full-fledged national assessment centre, called PARAKH, is now charged with the new approach to assessment, including creating standards for the 60-odd examination boards in the country. Combined with the school leaving exam suggested by the NEP, this can prove transformative and allow all examination boards to calibrate themselves in a way that has not been possible before. With reliable and rigorous data, we may actually understand learning and outcomes like never before.

The National Assessment Survey (NAS) and the corresponding State Assessment Surveys support this by evaluating schools, not students, as part of PARAKH. It does so by anonymising student results to test for system performance and not individual students.This contrasts with the plan to track individual students using adaptive assessments for predictive value.This is a red flag that raises the spectre of intrusive control, worse, an extension of the old tunnel vision, and should be pulled back to retain personal agency. Individual information is for individuals alone.

Connecting the dots within the NEP, one finds a well-defined assessment architecture for a National Assessment Strategy, almost as if embedded in stealth mode. A strategy that can drive fundamental change in a way that enables action at the level of state, school, teacher, and scholar, without disrupting the deep, almost existential faith in examinations, but works with it constructively to improve learning. This could well be the charge that shifts the needle.

Meeta W. Sengupta is a fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar.

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