College evaluation should be mostly internal, prospects of students should not be determined by a single exam, the university system should move to a “continuous and comprehensive evaluation system that incorporates scholastic and non-scholastic aspects of education”. These are a few of the recommendations made by a committee set up by the University Grants Commission to help reform the evaluation system for higher education.

Ironically, all these reforms were introduced in school education a decade ago, only to be undermined or abandoned by the government over the years. They were even blamed for the poor performance of children in standardised tests. Policy decisions taken since 2014, when the Narendra Modi government took office, have instead emphasised the academic aspect of education and public examinations, even for young children.

In June, the University Grants Commission, which regulates higher education in the country, invited suggestions on reforming evaluation in higher education. Based on the inputs received, the commission’s expert committee drafted a discussion paper, which is open for public comments until September 24.

For theory courses, the paper suggests four evaluation models, each requiring 75% evaluation to be internal, that is, done by the same teacher teaching the course. To make a student’s future less dependent on the schedules of a university, the paper suggests “on-demand examinations” that candidates can take when they are ready. In another radical departure from current policy, it expresses scepticism about common entrance tests for admission to undergraduate programmes.

Continuous evaluation

In its recommendations on measuring the progress of college students, the discussion paper is strongly redolent of the Right to Education Act, 2009. Implemented in 2010, it mandated a range of evaluation reforms. Making children repeat classes was banned until Class 8. Annual exams were replaced by “continuous comprehensive evaluation”, a system of tracking a child’s progress over the whole year. This was done through “summative assessments”, which usually took the form of an exam and showed how much the child knew, and “formative assessments”, which provided feedback on whether the teaching strategies were working. The Central Board of Secondary Education, the only public school board under the central government, abolished the Class 10 board exam, replacing it with the new system in 2009.

In November last year, explained how a flawed framework for the new system, created by the central board and adopted by states, ultimately led to the failure of these progressive reforms. Yet, the Modi government chose to scrap the reforms altogether rather than rework the evaluation guidelines or train teachers. It reinstated the Class 10 board exam from this year. Now, in what reveals a scattergun approach to policymaking, its own discussion paper suggests much the same reforms – albeit for higher education.

“Assessments have to be continuous to include both formative and summative components in a timely fashion for continuous feedback,” the document states. “Memorisation should be discouraged and improvement in the system is possible only when the right blend of internal and external evaluation is done. Various models have been used by universities in this regard, however we propose that 75% of internal assessment be used in conjunction with 25% of external assessment.”

The central school board has adopted the opposite policy for the Class 10 exam: 80% external evaluation through the annual exam and 20% internal.

Exams on demand

The discussion paper notes flaws in both the semester system and the year-end exams, and the stress they cause students:

“The future prospects of the students centre around their performance in this single examination. These exams are conducted on fixed dates as per the university calendar...There may be students who are prepared to take the exam much earlier and set out on their career path. Others might not be adequately prepared to appear for the examination in view of personal exigencies or slow learning styles. They are faced with the threat of failure, low self-esteem and no opportunities for improving their performance in future. This leads to building up of massive stress and anxiety among them often leading to tragic results. The purpose of the system in gauging the true ability or best performance of the learners, at best, gets defeated.” 

Activists and educationists have been saying this for a long time, in the context of schoolchildren. But while they judged public exams to have a bracing effect upon children, the discussion paper shows concern about the stress they cause in much older students.

As an alternative, the paper suggests on-demand exams, which will “free the examination system of its inflexible time frame allowing the students to take examination when they are prepared, creating students autonomy and enabling them rather than disabling them”.

There are suggestions on the practice of moderation which, as the paper explains, “checks, acknowledges and addresses any difference in individual judgements of different markers”. The document asks for the moderation policy to be stated before the exam, for it take into account all aspects of assessment that contribute to the final grade and ensure students have the right to appeal “to promote transparency”.

‘May not be desirable’

While the central Government, often in response to judicial orders, has increasingly centralised entrance exams for professional undergraduate programmes, the paper offers “a critique” of such “ability tests”. It contends that “a common ability test for graduates may not be desirable in the current scenario”. “It may result in disinterest of students for the undergraduate studies while preparing for the proposed test,” the document explains. “Such a trend is visible in India among the students who prepare for JEE, NEET, CAT etc and aspire for admission in premium institutions.”

JEE is the common entrance exam for engineering, NEET for medicine and CAT for management studies. The first two are for undergraduate courses and the last for a postgraduate programme.

These tests “not only generate competition among students but also among universities and institutions of higher learning”, the paper notes. It instead recommends nationwide exams for postgraduate programmes after “clustering streams” by discipline, such as social sciences all together. This will require ranking departments across India. It may also “limit the choice of students” to study in institutions in their vicinity. “Therefore,” the document suggests, “the entire system must be designed by thoroughly considering socioeconomic and other soft aspects concerning undergraduates representing non-metro cities of India.”

Competency across domains

The paper recommends the use of technology-enabled learning outside classroom and at any time. It suggests using “learning analytics” aimed at “the measurement, collection, analysis, and reporting of data” about learners and their backgrounds, “for the purposes of understanding and optimising learning and the environments in which it occurs”.

It pushes for a system of grades and credits rather than marks and suggests that every aspect of a student’s development be suitably reported, not just exam scores. Most central universities – established through acts of Parliament and governed by the Centre – have already adopted this system and the University Grants Commission is pushing state universities to follow suit. But the paper stresses that the results must reflect “the achievement and competency of learners across all domains”. “A single grade, percentage or score cannot depict the entire range of achievements of a learner,” it explains. “The result should be comprehensive and include all domains of learning outcomes: Academic, Social, Moral and Spiritual should be covered.”