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UN alert against test pressure on schools

Linking funding for schools to their students' performance in tests risks harming pupils from disadvantaged communities, a UN report has suggested after studying international experiments with such accountability.

By Basant Kumar Mohanty
  • Published 5.12.17
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New Delhi: Linking funding for schools to their students' performance in tests risks harming pupils from disadvantaged communities, a UN report has suggested after studying international experiments with such accountability.

The finding may hold lessons for India at a time the government has started the process of amending the Right to Education Act to allow state governments to fail children in Classes V and VIII.

Under the RTE Act, children have to be promoted compulsorily till they reach Class IX. The Centre introduced the amendment bill in the last session of Parliament on a demand from several states, which had blamed the rule for falling classroom standards.

Although the amendment doesn't link school funds to student performance, activists believe it will put the schools under pressure to show improved exam results anyway, with the attendant risks as explained by the Unesco report.

The Global Education Monitoring Report 2017-18 quotes independent studies that analysed results of the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa), an international test on science and mathematics, and found that sanction and reward systems did not necessarily yield substantial improvement.

Of the 51 countries that have adopted Pisa, 11 have made their schools accountable for their pupils' performance in the test. Five of these countries witnessed some improvement in their students' mean Pisa mathematics scores between 2003 and 2015, while the rest saw a deterioration.

America's No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which holds schools accountable for students' learning, only marginally improved student performance but widened the achievement gap between black and white students, the report says. Under test pressure, many schools reclassified low-performing students as disabled or excluded them altogether.

With explicit sanctions and rewards, test scores may become the central focus of schooling, rather than one objective among many, the report says.

Schools may adopt practices that undermine overall learning but improve test scores rapidly, such as shaping the testing pool, narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, teaching those on the verge of passing, and explicit cheating where students may also be involved.

Such measures can reduce morale and crowd out other reforms. In Chile, punitive accountability policies made low-performing schools likelier to adopt quick-fix measures, such as after-school tutoring, instead of longer-term strategies such as investing in teacher training.

One reason for the weak association between accountability reforms and students' learning outcomes may be the lack of school autonomy, the report surmises. It suggests that without decision-making control over hiring, budgeting and resource allocation, schools and communities can do little to change.

Such constraints are more widespread and severe in developing nations like India.

Ambarish Rai, an education activist, said continuous promotion was the core of the RTE Act and its dilution would greatly affect the poor.

"There is no link between learning outcomes and failing a child on the basis of performance. The RTE amendment will push the poor out of school," Rai said.