Discussions around Rote, Rigor, Testing and Marks

posted Jun 13, 2017, 1:53 AM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jun 16, 2017, 5:47 PM ]
Standardized testing is always a controversial topic and the concerns over rote and rigor always arise in any discussion related to it. 
There are two separate issues and we need to partition them appropriately. When people complain about specific tests and examinations, such as the workload required by the JEE, the real issue to zoom into is often the curriculum prescribed for it or the poor design of the test itself. 

The test and curriculum design themselves.
We can all agree on that - in the Indian context, a lot of top-down centralization and standardization of curriculum and systems is a disaster for such a large country. The NEET is just a recent example of this, not just for its legal and operational issues, but also academic ones. 
And the extent of the recall based component makes our tests far more of a burden than necessary, often with retrograde effects. 

The second issue is the relevance of test scores and academic assessments.

Fine grained reading into these scores is pointless. But regardless of what the most seasoned of school educators might recommend with or without authority, the professors right from Delhi University to Harvard to Oxford, do look at the results in exams and assessments of some sort. Similarly the hiring manager in a research or technology or finance firm will almost always screen out candidates who have no trace of academic accomplishment on their resume. They will not be enamoured by a teacher certifying that the student has potential to learn - they will screen using marks or grades. They are the gatekeepers of the economy and the workforce which I referred to. And they very much care about academic records, except for outliers who have proven themselves in other ways.

Great test scores or GPAs don't necessarily give people a free pass to anything, but poor ones lead to almost instantaneous disqualification. 
While we shouldn't obsess over either, the "marks don't matter" is only as true as the "money doesn't matter" line of thought: to varying extents, they both do. 
And while they tell far from the entire picture, to suggest that they don't matter at all, is to de-value the work of the schools or individuals or institutions which perform well. 
To deny that reality and to perpetuate that hoax, is turning into a bit of a fad nowadays, while ignoring the disastrous consequences of these poor test scores on the careers of folk in govt schools with poor results. As a stark example: Only 219 out of around 30k MBBS seats in TN, went to kids from govt. schools. Less than 1%. What was the bottle neck - their low marks (for whatever reason). 
It is likely that a similar analysis will see the same kids blocked out of a variety of career options for the same reason. The wash-back phenomenon of teaching to the test is a real issue - but preferable to not teaching at all (current situation in India).

We cannot conflate life stories with data. Plenty of individuals who excel in academics will fail in the real world and plenty who fare poorly in tests and academics will be fine in the long run.
But the probability that those who ace their tests will end up better off, is very much for real till the world discovers a better currency to calibrate competence. 
Singapore, Hong Kong, US, UK, Taiwan - all have various kinds of testing and assessments. 
Finland does fine without it, but it is a rich and small country which can afford a very high per-child spend. Also the Finnish model results in "most do fine" outcome but it doesn't produce that many high-achievers.

This is specially true in a developing country like India where any non-exam centric process, which is ostensibly liberal, could turn too expensive (and hence illiberal). 
US universities or closer home, Ashoka University - they are willing to consider a multitude of activities and accomplishments, while using test scores and GPAs only as a coarse filter.
However those activities need a lot of supporting infrastructure or exposure which an average kid in India will not be able to pay for.