Assessments are critical to learning, accountability and school improvement: If we don’t assess, how will we learn?

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This is a response to a recent livemint column by Azim Premji Foundation’s Anurag Behar in which he argues that assessments are not a primary systemic lever for improvement in education and that assessments should remain tools that provide feedback to teachers in the classroom. Interestingly, Behar does not make any reference to India’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). ASER has been around for a decade, riding on a simple and powerful idea: parents, communities, the wider civil society and policymakers just did not have sufficient information on the levels of learning our public schools deliver.
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Unsurprisingly, in an age where social spending by governments is under tremendous scrutiny and aid flows are under pressure, testing and assessments have found currency in many countries across the developing world. It has also helped civil society put pressure on education systems (whether public or private) to focus on learning outcomes, moving beyond a highly limiting obsession with inputs— classrooms, teachers, textbooks, uniforms, etc. To be clear, the argument is not that one can ignore the need for high quality inputs. Indeed, that would be foolish. However, there is now substantial evidence that on its own, investing in inputs will not yield improved schooling outcomes.
Therefore, one must focus on improving mechanisms for accountability. In order to fix accountability, one has to first set performance standards. In our schools, the performance standard that should matter the most is what children are learning in school. These learning outcomes need not be restricted to reading and numeracy, but at the end of the day, our education system must be able to set grade-appropriate yardsticks for what children will learn in school. And they must be held to account against the delivery of these learning outcomes.
In his column, Anurag Behar uses the example of measuring the temperature of individuals in a population and how creating incentives for improvement will not yield population-wide improvement in health outcomes. A child who is not learning after spending years in a school is not merely suffering from high temperature. She is slowly sliding towards a life of low productivity that will cripple him for life. If policymakers remain unaware of this steady slide that a significant part of our population is trapped in, they will fail to take the appropriate steps required to tackle this crisis.
Assessments speak to the quality of education delivered in our schools. Of course, one can argue about getting these assessments right—in the way questions are designed and how they are administered. Much like one can argue that we need to develop improved mechanisms for measuring health outcomes, but not that critical indicators such as the Infant Mortality Rate need not be measured or used to guide policymakers.
The other argument against assessments is that they are reductionist. The complexity of running an effective school system is not lost on anyone. In order to achieve a setting where teachers deliver lessons to their students in a classroom, one must factor in issues around access to school, child-friendly school structures, teacher recruitment, training, deployment and motivation, funds for equipment, etc. A complex system requires a flexible implementation model—exactly the opposite of our opaque bureaucracy-driven rigid system. By using assessments and shifting the focus to learning outcomes, local administrative units can be allowed to develop their own strategies to improve schooling in their areas. This is a step towards a system where schools would be allowed to decide how to utilise state funds contingent on delivering on learning outcomes—a flexible results-based school financing model with multiple watchdogs.
There is irrefutable evidence that the education sector faces a serious crisis of accountability with organised civil service-employed teachers. This is not an issue that can be overcome by additional teacher training. Research has shown that an isolated intervention at training or re-training teachers do not yield improvements in performance. Also, teachers in public schools in India are already in the upper quintiles of the income distribution of the country. There are also heart-warming stories of teachers who against all odds deliver to the best of their abilities in the interest of their students. This, however, is not the case if we talk of the average teacher in a public school. This crisis needs to be confronted on multiple fronts: by enforcing vertical accountability in the bureaucratic system that runs the education system; as well as providing communities and organised civil society the tools to demand accountability from their schools. Assessments that generate a measure of student-level learning outcomes are a way of doing this.
According to some, the fact that ASER has seen a steady decline in learning outcomes over its own lifetime of promoting assessment-generated evidence to the education sector is an indication that ASER has failed. This is a serious charge that the likes of ASER and Uwezo need to tackle. However, it must be noted that in the absence of a counterfactual, this isn’t a conclusion one can directly draw. The ASER and Uwezo surveys have also taken place in a context where enrolemnt shot up as countries adopted policies to ensure free and compulsory primary education.
But even if we were to accept this charge, assessments and testing need to be continued and indeed, strengthened. On the policy front, the follow-up ought to be in the form of steps to improve its uptake—about what we can do to bring together civil society and local implementers to take concrete steps towards improving learning in our schools.
Education systems are complex. In India, at the national level or even at the state-level, the scale of the challenge can be daunting. It is, however, important not to confuse the ends with the means. Assessments are not the primary lever for systemic change, but they certainly are a key component of the effort required to push the real levers to lift the load of our low-performing education system.

The Telegraph is on a roll

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Neither crawling, nor bendingtelegraph wake up

Percentage of households with toilets connected to piped sewer system

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s
Darker = higher %

Source: http://howindialives.com/hilchart_commonsearch_subdistrict.php

From my last column:

It is now widely acknowledged that conventional approaches are not working: those that set up a false dichotomy between construction and behaviour change; those that are content with pit latrines as opposed to functional toilets; those that use reductionist conceptions such as communities being open defecation free rather than focusing on personal and environmental sanitation and hygiene as a whole; and those that settle for incremental coverage instead of full coverage from the start.

The Indian parliament canteen – why isn’t it free?

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That is the question we should be debating, instead of this annual outrage over the trivial subsidy bill it incurs.

From The Hindu

Parliament canteens serving MPs got a total subsidy of Rs 60.7 crore during last five years with items like puri sabji being sold at 88 per cent subsidised rates, an RTI reply shows.

Parliamentarians, earning over Rs 1.4 lakh with perks, are relishing items like fish fried with chips at Rs 25, mutton cutlet at Rs 18, boiled vegetables at Rs 5, mutton curry with bone at Rs 20 and masala dosa at Rs 6 with rates subsidised by 63 per cent, 65 per cent, 83 per cent, 67 per cent and 75 per cent, respectively

Of course it’s a wonder that non-vegetarian food is still served!

For the non-vegetarian meal raw items are procured at Rs 99.05 while the prepared dish is served at Rs 33 to MPs with 66 per cent subsidy

The annual salary and allowances of parliamentarians adds up to about INR 140 crore, btw. So what’s the big deal about a canteen bill?

Ghanaian cop salaries doubled…and made them more corrupt

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In what seems to go against some conventional thinking on the motivation to be corrupt:

Not only did the police spend more time shaking down drivers after they received higher salaries, but they took significantly more money after receiving higher wages. Instead of leading to a more (if the reader would permit us) civil police force, the higher salaries seemed to give them a higher appetite for corruption. Although we were initially encouraged to spot a parallel increase in the number of trucks that didn’t pay bribes, we were disheartened to realize that bribery  did not actually change. This was partly because the police salary change also increased the number of road stops on the highway. Arguably worse, the aggregate bribe cost of the trip significantly rose following the salary increase.

This, from a World Bank blog by Kweku Agyemang. As the author reports, this happened in spite of drivers all having valid documents.

The research paper by Agemang and Jeremy Foltz further states

…policemen who received the single spine salary increase in Ghana increased the effort they allocated to collecting bribes in time spent asking for bribes, in the number of checkpoints they operated, the value of bribes they took, the total amount that truckers had to pay on the road, all while they increased the number of trucks let go without a bribe

So the higher salary seems to have upped the stakes for these cops in the bribe-taking game.

Assessments are critical to learning, accountability and school improvement

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This is my latest livemint column

It can be nobody’s case that our public schools are doing well. Parents are voting with their feet, moving their kids to private schools even if those come at a significantly higher cost. This is not a column on the ‘public vs private’ debate in education. This is about assessment, reflecting on a recent column by Azim Premji Foundation’s Anurag Behar in which he argues that assessments are not a primary systemic lever for improvement in education and that assessments should remain tools that provide feedback to teachers in the classroom.

We need robust systems of school-based assessments, the results of which can feed both policy-making and policy implementation.

there must be clear mechanisms for accountability. In order to fix accountability, one has to first set performance standards. In our schools, the performance standard that should matter the most is what children are learning in school. These learning outcomes need not be restricted to reading and numeracy, but at the end of the day, our education system must be able to set grade-appropriate yardsticks for what children will learn in school. And they must be held to account against the delivery of these learning outcomes.

Also, the accountability story

There is irrefutable evidence that the education sector faces a serious crisis of accountability with organised civil service-employed teachers. This is not an issue that can be overcome by additional teacher training. Research has shown that an isolated intervention at training or re-training teachers do not yield improvements in performance. Also, teachers in public schools in India are already in the upper quintiles of the income distribution of the country. There are also heart-warming stories of teachers who against all odds deliver to the best of their abilities in the interest of their students. This, however, is not the case if we talk of the average teacher in a public school. This crisis needs to be confronted on multiple fronts: by enforcing vertical accountability in the bureaucratic system that runs the education system; as well as providing communities and organised civil society the tools to demand accountability from their schools. Assessments that generate a measure of student-level learning outcomes are a way of doing this.

Six steps to a successful sanitation campaign

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In my latest livemint column, I piece together a set of recommendations for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

It is now widely acknowledged that conventional approaches are not working: those that set up a false dichotomy between construction and behaviour change; those that are content with pit latrines as opposed to functional toilets; those that use reductionist conceptions such as communities being open defecation free rather than focusing on personal and environmental sanitation and hygiene as a whole; and those that settle for incremental coverage instead of full coverage from the start.

Six steps, not easy to follow, but could be the difference between failure and success. In short:

First, do not approach communities with a single message (build and use toilets), but with a comprehensive health and hygiene intervention. 
Second, instead of being subsidy-averse, be ready to experiment until you get the design right. 
Third, play on local power relations. 
Fourth, allow communities to evolve their own norms around individual and collective rights and responsibilities. Fifth, do not hurry into scaling up.
Sixth, and perhaps most important, be conscientious about quality.