Thursday, May 02, 2013

The real purpose of Assessments

In a scene from the 1996 hit movie, Agni Sakshi, Nana Patekar confronts Jackie Shroff in a rare face-off. Jackie, playing a rich (and good samaritan to Nana Patekar's estranged wife played by Manisha Koirala) belittles Nana with  a big difference between their status. Nana, in his nonchalant tone, responds with this gem, "Just because your car is bigger than mine, it doesn't make my car any smaller or bigger than it actually is"!

Somehow, this dialogue has stayed with me over all these years. And I have interpreted it in many different ways. The one big interpretation is that in its relevance to assessments in today's education world. I interpreted it as "What others achieve (or don't) doesn't make my achievements any bigger (or smaller) that they mean to me."

We need to understand assessment in its core and entirety. At its core, assessment is a means to self-improvement in two dimensions- progress over where I was and in the context of what I can be. In either context, it is a very personal event and can't have it's bearing on or from another person's assessment state. A 15-year old child, whose paintings adorn the school walls and are worthy of being displayed in an art exhibition in the central town hall, needs to be assessed on how much more he can stretch his imagination and mature in this subject. At the same time, a child, who is branded as "good-for-nothing" has to be assessed on his ability to find his true meaning in the context of his surroundings. He has to be guided in this quest pushing him gently into the realms of the unknown.

Assessment, in its entirety, encompasses the whole, not a part of an individual. In his seminal work on appraisals (in the corporate context), T.V.Rao captured the spirit of assessment by coining the term "360 degree appraisal". Although set in a different environment, it holds equal relevance to a school assessment situation. Modern educational setups try to capture an overall picture of a child's situation by getting observations from classmates and parents to present a more complete picture of the child.

Over the years, I have graduated to assessing myself in a very personal and introspective mode than from an outsider's perspective (typically, my bosses, family and subordinates). It is a much less stressful activity and much more contented. The obvious question, of course, remains that of its relevance and impact on the real world that I live in. The most glaring, and hard-hitting, event is the raise in salary or position that I get because of someone else's perceptions. I believe it is also an event to be incorporated into my own assessment model. It should become a way of understanding how much I can convey to others about my worth. At another level, it should also indicate the course I would like my life to take.

Assessment is an important and a most critical component of the life of every entity- from an individual learner to an organization going right up to a nation. Shying away from assessment is like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand. Methods of assessment and the actions taken can have such a very high impact on a society. A recent report by Pratham indicates the result of the No Fail policy in just two years of implementation. The reading and arithmetic levels, the two most critical performance indicators of a nation's young learners, dropped to alarming levels. This relates well to the way assessments are done, and even more importantly, the way the results are interpreted and implemented.

I am reminded of a recent post on Facebook about the experiment a Professor did in his class to explain the results of a communist versus a capitalist society. After they all agreed to settle for the average score of all students to be awarded to all students irrespective of individual performance, they found that within the year, the complete class had failed. Obviously, the top performers felt demotivated to work hard given that they would get a lower score. I didn't quite agree with the logic that since this system failed, the other one (that of extreme competition) would succeed. It never has either, given the ever-widening gap in the performance levels of students in any academic class.

Summing it up, I feel that conducting assessments is a very serious business, and should be entrusted to the right people instead of taking it as a middle- or end-of-the-term formality and, worse, as a criterion to pass a judgement over the learner's capabilities. Let the learner decide!