In the forthcoming winter session, Parliament is poised to pass an amendment that could end one of the most radical reforms in India’s school education system. The no-detention policy, which was introduced under the Right to Education Act 2009, disallowed schools from failing children below Class 9. The amendment, if passed, will allow them to detain students in Class 5 and Class 8.

Why is India giving up on a progressive school reform within years of introducing it? Largely because schools are fed up of the new system of evaluating children that replaced the simpler year-end examinations in which children could be failed. Called ‘continuous comprehensive evaluation’, the new system involved tracking the progress of children through the school year and through a range of activities, not just tests.

But the way the policy was implemented proved to be a burden on parents and teachers, especially in public schools. “Teachers have to constantly fill tables and forms,” said the principal of a school run by Delhi government. “Some figures are simply made up because it is impossible to do all those exercises and grade them. This wasted time and drew focus away from course work.”

Now, however, the authorities are finally acknowledging that it wasn’t the idea per se but the design of continuous comprehensive evaluation that was flawed. Most primary schools across India were relying on a scheme of evaluation designed by the Central Board of Secondary Education, which as the name suggests, has expertise limited to secondary education, beginning with Class 9. It lacks the competence to design evaluation for primary grades.

Recognising the problem, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, which oversees the implementation of the Right to Education Act, has written to the CBSE and asked it to discontinue its scheme of evaluation. It wants schools to adopt the scheme designed by the National Council for Educational Research and Training. “For primary education till Class 8, the NCERT is the appropriate academic authority,” said the commission’s member, Priyank Kanoongo.

But the course correction might be coming too late.

Asked why the child rights commission waited till 2017 and an impending amendment to intervene, Kanoongo said: “A lot was going wrong that we are now trying to correct.” He added that the CBSE has not yet responded to the commission’s order.

Studies show that the government has known for long that the CBSE’s evaluation scheme was flawed.

Two schemes

Well before the Right to Education Act made continuous comprehensive evaluation compulsory for primary grades – Classes 1-8 – government bodies responsible for designing education policy had already endorsed it. The National Curriculum Framework, a set of guidelines developed by the NCERT in 2005, recommended making assessments school-based. “Each school should evolve a flexible and implementable scheme of continuous and comprehensive evaluation, primarily for diagnosis, remediation and enhancing of learning,” it said.

Four years later, in 2009, two major changes took place in school education.

The Right to Education Act was passed, ushering widespread reform in primary schooling. And the Central Board of Secondary Education, citing the National Curriculum Framework, made the Class 10 public exam optional and drew up a scheme for continuous comprehensive evaluation for Classes 9 and 10.

Intended to evaluate students holistically, all continuous comprehensive evaluation schemes are generally split into two components – formative and summative assessments. As Ashok Pandey, principal of a Delhi school explained, formative assessments were for tracking learning and overall development through the school year using a range of activities – quizzes, group activities, sports, projects. “They tell teachers if their teaching strategies are working,” he said. Correctly implemented, they allow teachers to not only choose their techniques for student assessment, but also decide the frequency of their use and whether to grade and report a pupil’s performance in them. Summative assessments “take stock of how much learning has happened” in the form of conventional tests.

But the Central Board of Secondary Education, while using the right terms, interpreted “continuous evaluation” as constant tests, assignments and activities, all of which – even personality traits – were scored and included in the final grade. It fixed a minimum number of formative assessments at two per semester and required teachers to pick from a pre-determined list of techniques for each subject. This led to a centrally-ordered, rigid framework allowing little flexibility to teachers. “Though CBSE makes extensive reference to NCF 2005 [National Curriculum Framework] in its manual, its scheme of CCE [continuous comprehensive evaluation] contradicts with the philosophy of that framework,” wrote Y Sreekanth, till recently the head of NCERT’s survey division, in a 2017 paper for The Curriculum Journal.

The CBSE’s scheme of evaluation for Class 9-10 was instantly unpopular with secondary school teachers, especially those in government schools with large classes. In 2010, the CBSE produced a manual for Classes 6-8. When continuous comprehensive evaluation became compulsory for primary level, even schools unaffiliated to CBSE fell back on this scheme as NCERT did not have one ready till 2013. Replicated across states, and introduced from Class 3 in Kendriya Vidyalayas, the flaws of the CBSE scheme were amplified. The father of a Kendriya Vidyalaya student described it as “a horrible experience” involving “endless tests and assignments”.

About six months ago, said Kanoongo, the commission took “suo moto cognisance” of the problem after studying the CBSE scheme. It served notices to the board. In September, it ordered the board to shelve its scheme and follow NCERT’s lead. “Our view is that this is a serious violation of Section 29 (2) of the Right to Education Act and that CBSE does not have the right to dictate,” he said.

School girls in Kolkata (Credit: Biswarup Ganguly/ Wikimedia Commons)

Evaluation and the Act

But this intervention may have come too late. Resentment among teachers has grown over the years and been directed, not against continuous comprehensive evaluation for which they were not trained, but against the no-detention policy.

The ban on making children repeat classes made eminent sense to educationists. “Children do not improve after going over the same curriculum twice,” said Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, in Delhi. “Either they scrape through or they fail again and go to another school. It is hugely stressful for children – their alignments with peers are broken as classmates they have been with since nursery move on.”

But continuous comprehensive evaluation required more inputs from the government – better trained teachers, more learning resources, smaller classes. The government failed to deliver on every count. Consequently, in spite of the wide consensus on the inefficacy of detention, principals and teachers across schools believe that without the fear of failure dangling over their heads, children and parents do not take education seriously.

This had now led to a situation where the reform could be abandoned. On August 11, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Second Amendment) Bill, 2017, was introduced in the Lok Sabha, seeking to bring back detention through examinations for Class 5 and Class 8 students.

The Right to Education Forum, an alliance of activists, opposed the Bill and earlier this month, wrote to the Parliamentary Standing Committee pointing out that over the seven years since the law was passed, Central and state governments failed to train teachers or even provide them in sufficient numbers, relying instead on contractual employees. They also failed to fix infrastructure problems that afflict most public schools.

But it is the no-detention policy – and not the cumulative effect of this litany of systemic failures – that has been blamed for declining standards, and mass failures in Class 9. Removing it shifts the responsibility for educating away from the system and the government to children and parents.

Students in Bangalore put in last-minute revision immediately before an exam

Known for years

But studies show that educationists, even those within NCERT, have known for years that continuous comprehensive evaluation was not being implemented effectively. Kavita Sharma, from the NCERT’s department of elementary education, authored two studies on the implementation of continuous comprehensive evaluation with the ministry of human resource development’s support. Published in 2014, the first study surveyed documents from 12 states and pointed out the yawning gap between the way concepts were defined and what the strategies for their implementation demanded.

The study said assessments of the cumulative performance of children in grades and percentiles “leave little scope for assessment for learning or assessment during the formative period, which is meant to identify gaps and offer timely feedback and support for further learning”.

While Sharma does not state it explicitly in this report, educationists at the National University of Education Planning and Administration have pointed out that the measures that her report objects to, all feature in the CBSE’s scheme for continuous comprehensive evaluation. The CBSE plan required even personal-social qualities and life-skills to be graded, which Sharma described as “highly unjustified and unreasonable”.

However, no serious attempt was made for course-correction. In 2015, the ministry sought feedback on continuous comprehensive evaluation. In response to that, the CBSE in 2016 restored the compulsory Class 10 board exam for affiliated schools from 2018.

Things continued as usual for other boards and classes. Sharma’s second survey of 11 states in 2016 showed little had changed since 2014. In this report, however, Sharma explicitly stated that eight out of 11 states “had their CCE guidelines as per the CBSE pattern” and identified this as a “gap”.

‘Record-keeping exercise’

A 2016 study by Unicef of the implementation of continuous comprehensive evaluation in six states – Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh – painted an even more dire picture. The assessment data amassed “was not used...for any follow-up action for student learning”, thereby defeating the main purpose of continuous comprehensive evaluation. It said: “The grades do not reflect achievements or gaps in specific learning indicators; hence they were not ‘actionable’. The recording of assessment marks and grades seemed to be an end in itself.”

Despite such damning reports and a mass of anecdotal evidence from teachers, students and parents, absolutely no step has been taken to fix continuous comprehensive evaluation, say educationists. The adoption of the CBSE pattern was never questioned, said the RTE Forum’s representation to Parliament. It had turned continuous comprehensive evaluation into “a massive record keeping exercise, with a focus on measuring and not improving learning and led to a massive backlash against both [the no-detention policy] and CCE.”

Ashok Pandey, principal of Ahlcon International and the former chairperson of an alliance of private schools called the National Progressive Schools Conference, said continuous comprehensive evaluation is being dismissed just when schools were “starting to understand its intended purpose and refine the process of its implementation”.