Pointing the right way to education reform

Mrs. Babita, a teacher at Lakdiya Government Primary School, was brimming with excitement when she said “I felt proud when I learned that my school and block had been declared “Saksham” [having achieved grade-level competency]. My effort to help my students with foundational skills, even on school holidays, had borne fruit.” Mrs. Babita’s experience captures the enthusiasm and excitement that the Saksham Haryana project has generated for many teachers, block officers, students, and other state stakeholders.

Over the last five years, the state government’s Saksham Haryana project has radically altered the education system for thousands of students at the school and administrative levels. To understand what kind of interventions were necessary for each school, one aspect of the program was to diagnose learning levels block by block. Haryana officials knew that change was needed, and data from the assessments would point them in the right direction. The government invited blocks to self-nominate for Gray Matters India’s (GMI) evaluation. If GMI found at least 80% of Grade 3, 5 and 7 students at grade level in Hindi and Mathematics, then that block would be declared ‘Saksham.’

There are a few significant challenges faced while conducting large scale assessments. Diagnosing learning levels is a complicated assignment to tackle. Each student learns and expresses themselves differently, but the government needs actionable, standardized information to make policy decisions that can be shared with stakeholders at each level. Finding a middle ground is difficult and when you take it to the enormous scale of statewide assessments, the task becomes even more challenging.

Let’s look at how GMI tackled these challenges in Haryana.

What to diagnose

Every teacher has a different approach to sharing the curriculum and how much a student knows about a particular subject can vary dramatically from school to school. To come up with a fair standard for each student, GMI identifies skills and competencies that students need to excel at a particular grade level. Often standard classroom tests check the knowledge of content while ignoring the importance of critical thinking skills. For example, a typical test will determine whether a child can do the literal reading, while a GMI test will also diagnose reading comprehension and ability to apply information learned through reading. Such skills and competencies tell us how much a student will be to understand, apply and analyze content.

The government has endorsed this approach to testing and according to the National Curriculum Framework 2005, “There’s an immediate need to shift from content-based testing to problem-solving and competency based-testing. Content-based testing induces bad pedagogy and rote learning, both of which cause stress during examinations.”

In Haryana, one outcome of competency-based testing has been that school-level stakeholders have begun to change the way they think about education, shifting from a conversation about “pass marks” to evaluating student skills and competencies. This mindset shift has influenced teaching methods too. Mrs. Komal, Block Resource Person, Pehowa said “We created practice papers based on prioritized competencies in our joint meeting with few teachers. Next week, we shared resources and papers around an old competency that schools were working on and a new competency which they can prioritize now. This led to improvement.”

Testing at scale

Testing every single student each time a block requests an evaluation in a state the size of Haryana would be impractical and inefficient. To test block level learning outcomes without sacrificing data integrity or scale, GMI performed stratified sampling in every round. This was done by randomly picking a minimum of 500 students each of Grade 3, 5 and 7 from at least 40 schools in a block. The student-size was big enough to be able to draw conclusions for the whole block. Overall, 3,47,282 students were assessed by GMI in 207 blocks as part of seven rounds of assessments.

While it is impossible to supervise every school, GMI took measures to make sure that the data is sound, like rigorously training field staff, disqualifying deviant data points, and pattern checking with algorithms to identify and discard instances of cheating or data tampering.

To keep costs down GMI trained prospective teachers at DIETs (District Institute for Education Training) to conduct assessments themselves, with minimal guidance from external parties. With this new cadre of trained teachers, Haryana can hold large scale assessments more easily in the future.

Sharing actionable data

GMI shared the data with the stakeholders in a way that was easy to understand and use for improving schools. Mr. Sudarshan, District Nodal Officer, Jhajjar shared when his block wasn’t declared Saksham the first time, the report from GMI identified vital skills to focus on in language and Mathematics. “I learned a lot from the result analysis that GMI shared with us. [Analysis pointed out the] competencies in which students are not doing well. I called out the teachers meeting in my block to discuss on these competencies, address them and then monitored progress.”

The next time assessment happened a few months later, Jhajjar was declared Saksham. The percentage of Grade 3 students at grade level in Mathematics jumped from 66% to 89% between two rounds of assessment. Having the assessment allowed them to understand what they had to work on and take corrective action. This not just points out the value of competency-based testing, but also how the right data can help government officials make better decisions. GMI shares analysis reports with the states and blocks to help them understand the percentage of students at grade level. The reports provide in-depth information, not just on a student’s learning level, but in what specific skills they excel or fall behind. With this data, officials like Mr. Sudarshan can plan interventions which will move students towards grade-level.

Pointing in the right direction

Up until now, GMI has carried out seven rounds of assessment, and 79% of Haryana has been declared Saksham. To put this into perspective, in 94 out of 119 blocks, more than 80% of students are at grade-level in Mathematics & Hindi, a significant shift from the story a few years back. Assessments are just one part of the Saksham Haryana story, which includes a whole collection of interventions and reforms. However, they are vital to the effort, acting as a compass that can guide the rest of the interventions in the right direction.

Saksham Haryana is a prime example of how mobilizing all stakeholders in the education community towards a single goal can make a real difference. Teachers, headmasters, block-, district-, and state-level government officials, SCERT officials, and others are all playing a role to empower the state to achieve Saksham status. Everyone can be rallied behind to solve a problem if there’s clarity around what is the problem and why is it a problem. GMI’s assessments are rigorously designed and methodically implemented to make sure the system is rallied together to move forward in the right direction.