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The debate surrounding standardized tests is something very new. Educators and parents alike, all around the globe, are questioning the reliability of the concept, “one test for all”. As the world is moving towards personalized learning, it is only natural to feel the need for personalization in the evaluation as well. Not every student is meant to become a scientist and their performance cannot be effectively evaluated by just comparing their grades in science-centric exams. Right now, the dispute regarding the continuous application of standardized testing is at its peak. And some are even calling for its total abolition from schools.

Yet, the boarding school in India continues to follow the standardized pattern. The CBSE board itself has no other way of judging students’ educational growth. Then, should you be terming these schools and institutions as backward? Or should you remain skeptical about enrolling your children in schools? The top schools have their own reasons to hold onto standardized tests and naturally, they do not merely focus on these as absolute methods. In good schools, standardized tests continue to matter, but with certain modifications.

To present a clear picture, let us first properly define what standardized tests actually are. That will set the foundation for exploring the two sides of this coin. With that knowledge, you will be appropriately placed to contemplate the school’s reasonings and better understand the validity of standardized tests. Let’s get started.

What are the standardized tests?

Most of the conventional examinations that you have taken in your educational and/or professional career were probably standardized tests. To state it simply, every candidate is required to undertake the same task, answering a group of questions or clearing a few obstacle races, and the evaluation is done as a comparison against one another. In the Indian education system, all students taking a particular exam are required to answer the same question paper and their performances are compared depending on the grades they receive. The core expectation of these examinations is that students are required to meet a particular standard or benchmark which serves as the evaluator’s guide to judge a student’s performance.

Generally, there are two major types of standardized tests that most Indian schools follow.

  1. Standardized aptitude tests
  2. Standardized achievement tests

In the first category, the exam is set to predict the difficulty level of the next grade and accordingly, the questions are assigned. For instance, a school testing its students in the annual exams judges the difficulty level of grade 6 that the students are likely to face and the questions they set for the grade 5 students are obviously as per that predicted complexity. The students who meet the basic standard, or clears the passing marks, get promoted.

In achievement tests, the exams measure present development. They are the class tests that most schools carry out periodically. Standardized achievement tests measure the overall progress, compares the growth with the previous test scores, and pinpoints the strong and weak areas of students as compared to a given standard. Teachers get an insight into the class’s present knowledge levels as the tests are precisely designed based on that.

As evident, both the above forms of standardized tests are necessary. In fact, the boarding school in India combines the results of these two tests to create the final result. The weightage may differ but the insights achieved are enriching. And this is one of the many reasons why the Indian education system continues to favor standardized tests.

Then, why are standardized tests seen in a negative light?

As the famous saying goes, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its entire life believing that it is a failure. Non-believers of standardized testing are basically questioning the reliability and validity of the system. The argument that they are constantly bringing forward is that a standard exam cannot measure all the unique skills that students possess. And the reasonings are undeniable. There are indeed a few factors that standardized tests do not consider during the evaluation.

  1. To date, soft skills remain outside the testing boundaries

The global education system as a whole agrees that today’s children need to learn soft skills in school. Yet, standardized tests do not incorporate the evaluation of skills like creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration ability. In the 21st-century, these skills are as vital as in-depth knowledge of science and schools are continuing to struggle to test students including these. The ultimate result is that, without evaluation, the incorporation of 21st-century skills is becoming generalized. Everyone knows that they are bring taught by the school but hardly anyone is being to test their existence or growth.

  1. Educational diversity also stays outside

A survey conducted in schools of Michigan, United States, showed that almost all standardized tests set by those institutions were textbook-oriented. There were a few preferred books, the questions were framed from their chapters, and students were directed to study only those materials for passing their exams. It is no news that one book cannot cover the entire required scope of education. Students must feel the freedom to study from any resource that they are curious about. Standardized tests have the tendency of making students bookish, thus, preventing them from exploring other diverse academic options.

Plus, there are other profound drawbacks of standardized examinations.

  1. They are unreliable to some extent

Consider a student who suffers from exam anxiety. He might know the subject matter completely but the lack of nerves will prevent him from answering the questions in the exam hall. Another student may be suffering from a reading disability like dyslexia. She will take more time to comprehend the questions as compared to an average student. Understandably, both these students will not fair well in standardized tests where the questions and the time to answer them are fixed. Their grades will also not reflect their true potential or knowledge. In such scenarios, standardized exams become an unreliable evaluation system.

  1. They negatively affect student confidence

Which is inevitable. The grades that ultimately come out are, after all, comparisons. They either compare the students against each other (the percentile method) or against a set benchmark (the percentage method). If owing to anxiety or a disability, a student does fail to perform in the standardized exam, he/she will gradually start deprecating his/her self-worth. This starts a negative loop. The anxious student will feel more anxious. The student with dyslexia will recoil. Education will suffer in the end when the fault was never with the student, to begin with. Standardized tests do bring down motivation. And this is a negative impact that still plagues the system.

Fortunately, the best boarding school in India identifies these drawbacks. And such institutions do take the necessary steps to combat them. But the reason why they continue to carry on with this assessment system is the benefits that it provides to schools and boards as a whole.

Positives of standardized tests

  1. The system is highly efficient

Think at schools’ levels only. Designing a personalized assessment system that will take into account the unique skills of every student will be a herculean task. Now, multiply that with the number of schools that function under the CBSE board and the number of students the central authority has to administer. How possibly can the institution design a personal assessment for everyone? Thus, standardized exams are still an efficient system to evaluate a large number of students fast. It might not be a perfect way, but it is also not totally inaccurate as well. By testing students through a set of questions, any educational establishment can quickly form a general report of the overall performance.

  1. Comparison is required to evaluate progress

What is the metric to measure development? Can anyone call something progressive without having a standard to compare it with? Hence, to evaluate educational progress, a boarding school in India still prefer standardized tests. These are some of the best ways to evaluate a student’s present potential and predict his/her future capacity. As already stated, the questions in standardized exams are set keeping in mind the outcome of the exam, to evaluate a student’s present knowledge and his/her ability to cope with higher complexity, and hence, the grades actually reflect and filter students who can and cannot meets those ends. All-inclusive exams are partly counterproductive here. Especially, when the volume factor exists.

  1. Standardized tests provide accountability

When all students of a particular class or a school sit for the same exam, the results reflect how well the entire class or school is doing. This gives rise to accountability. If the whole class did well, then the teacher can conclude that the lesson plans are working. If the results were poor, then the educator feels the need to bring in a few modifications. Similarly, at the school level, good standardized scores portray the institute’s academic effectivity while mediocre marks go on to show that the school is probably doing a few things wrong. Standardized tests are again an efficient way to extract feedback. Concerned authorities depend on this system to constantly evaluate their performance and role out beneficial academic programs for the students. The alternative may not provide such deep accountability as schools will not have one metric to depend on.

  1. There is no room for human bias

With standardized tests, human bias immediately vanishes. Take a simple example. Say a teacher, who is also the evaluator, finds a student disruptive in class. Naturally, he/she will form a negative bias towards this student owing to the continuous bad experience that he/she faced. Now, when this teacher has no set metric to evaluate the student with but is free to include classroom behaviors, skills, and other such non-standardized parameters, his/her human bias is bound to work. Note that this is totally unintentional. The teacher may try hard to keep the past behind but the experiences are bound to influence his/her evaluation. Standardized tests have no room for such inconsistencies. With just one accepted system, human bias is automatically kept out of the loop.

In short, standardized examinations come with both pros and cons. And unfortunately (or fortunately), both sides are equally heavy. Even when a lot of negativity surrounds the concept, the boarding school in India understand the system’s value. But as with most things, the decision is never binary. No one can simply state that going forward with standardized tests is the right path to take or totally abolishing it is the solution. What can act as a fix is to continue to reap the benefits of standardized tests, concurrently managing the drawbacks on the side.

Possible evaluation approaches that schools can adopt

Various approaches have been suggested by numerous educational researchers and some of them are already in use. The motive is to combine the best of both worlds and include the involved interests of both the schools and the students. Here are a few ways in which the prevalent standardized exams can be modified. As will be evident, each approach tackles the issue of the unique needs that students face, simultaneously preserving the efficiency and accountability factor that schools wish to involve.

  1. Giving equal weightage to various topics

Instead of just testing the fish’s ability to climb a tree, why not include swimming in the exam as well? That is what equal weightage means. The boarding school in India employs this system in their standardized tests, similar to the manner CBSE follows in its exams as well. In mathematics, for example, an equal number of questions come from the three general sections – arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. There are options where the students are free to choose from which section they want to answer the most, giving them the freedom to play to their strengths. And every student is also required to answer at least one or two questions from each where the basic knowledge of each section is tested. The pattern is followed with every other subject, thus combining standards with skills.

  1. Mixing up the question pattern

Not long ago, schools and the boards started incorporating MCQs and short questions into their exams instead of just keeping the papers long-answer based. This made room for those students who possess comprehension difficulties and could score just by ticking the right option. It also freed up time in the standard slot, giving more freedom to students with difficulties to space out their answers and take it easy. Mixing up question patterns by keeping all the students’ needs in mind and providing choices here as well modify standardized exams positively. This is where the all-inclusive factor comes in that the other side so desperately wants to include.

  1. Setting partial weightage to projects

Project-based learning takes care of a lot of loopholes that standardized exams tend to have. When students are allowed to pursue projects and their efforts are marked, all other aspects that were initially absent from standardized exams come into the fray as well. With projects, students are given the scope to research on topics beyond their textbooks. They are also made to work in a group that involves collaboration into the mix. Creativity is taken into account by how well the project is presented and critical thinking comes in naturally when students are forced to decide what to include in the report and what not to. Plus, the project-based evaluation does not have to be standardized. Every student or group can choose their own topics.

  1. Provision for counseling at school

The boarding school in India houses a counseling department within its premises. If such schools are to follow standardized tests, they are willing to deal with the repercussions as well. If a student is indeed becoming demotivated with standardized tests, the counselor can help to identify the possible reasons and assist the student to fight those issues. Plus, as the interaction is always one-to-one, a school counselor is best placed to identify a learning disability, guide the teachers in educating the child and also help parents to be patient. Suggestions from the department can go the management as well to modify a few systems to accommodate the needs of this specific student.

So, finally coming to the question – should standardized continue to exist in schools? Yes, along with the above measures. As a standalone system, the method is definitely not effective. But overall, it is efficient and productive. The CBSE board in India is doing its very best to modernize the existing system. And good schools are also following suit to allow proper education to take the centerstage.

Swarnprastha Public School falls on that list. Being a boarding school in India, it naturally follows the board directed system of standardized exams. Still, SPS is modern enough to follow an all-inclusive assessment procedure that personalizes exam parameters to required levels and seeks to test students depending on their individual mettle. The school maintains a top-notch infrastructure to give the ultimate academic exposure to students. Internally, SPS conducts skill-based assessments to develop abilities along with knowledge. This is where standardized exams exist in their modern form, but the pros of the other side find inclusion as well.

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