Revolution in education requires a rethinking of assessment

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The machinery

Education: The conversion of Human Beings into Human Resource

We may have ideas that the purpose of education is to help children of our society grow and learn in a safe environment and allow them to be nurtured into well-rounded adults. But that is as seen from the perspective of the children. Let’s say it is the subjective dimension. The other side to it is that the society needs its citizens to be highly functional units that serve to make the society better. This would be the objective dimension of what constitutes education. Neither of these are the “right” way of looking at what happens. They are parallel processes that happen simultaneously. In fact, I would argue that both of them have to happen simultaneously for either of them to happen in a meaningful way, because you cannot have one without the other.

While the perspective of the children and what education does for them is the one that we would typically adopt when speaking of education, when we are attempting to revolutionise it, or even just improve it, we ought to not ignore the objective dimension, which is from the point of view of what the society has to expect from the students. This is so because that is where you can find answers to the questions of why things are the way they are today.

When looking at the educational industry objectively, we can observe that it is composed of a few core components — students, institutions, employers and the economy. The students are the feed, or the primary source material. This source material is to be converted to “Human Resource”, which is essentially usable fuel for the economy. The institutions, and this includes schools, colleges, educational boards etc, are responsible for the efficient conversion of human beings (students) into high quality economic fuel (human resource). The employers are the consumers of that fuel. The economy of course, is the emergent consequence of how the employers spend the human resource. Simple enough? Well, this is the core summary of what happens in the name of education.

In a way, you can equate it to the farming industry. The seeds are the children. The farmers are the institutions. The crop yield or produce is the final commodity, the equivalent of human resource. The buyers of the produce in the markets are the employers. They examine the produce for nutritional content, quality etc, just as employers examine the human resource for how valuable of an input these graduates would be for their companies. The farmers get to sell the produce for a higher rate if the quality of their produce is high enough, and that is the end goal. That is essentially exactly the case with the educational institutions wanting to produce more competent graduates so that they can be sold in the market for higher pay packages, thereby consolidating the reputation of the institution.

Looking at education through this lens should offer a very critical insight — the current approach relies heavily on treating human beings as passive commodities that need to be worked on and shaped from the outside, in order to maximise the efficiency of the system. And this is the reason why, by design, children grow up in schools without much agency in how they spend their time. It is all dictated to them and designed for them from the outside.

Although this presents a bleak overview of what education is, as I mentioned earlier, it is important to also factor this dimension of education into consideration. Now the question is, how do we improve the way things happen, so that both the parallel considerations undergo positive developments?

Assessments — A critical intersection between the objective and the subjective

Standardised tests and the unrelenting focus on examinations have received criticism from all quarters. On the one hand, it puts students through excessively stressful environments and there is an unreasonable amount of competition in what usually ends up offering the highest scorers nothing more than meaningless advantage over peers. On the other hand, these examination scores and ranks offer no effective guide for employers to pick the right candidate for the job. And that is solely owing to the huge disconnect that exists between actual talent and capability that is relevant in the real world and all the tricks and methods it takes to score high on these exams and get a certificate.

Poorly designed, irrelevant and outdated assessment techniques have been the norm since forever and there’s a clear distaste for assessments from many sides. But they serve a vital functionality that cannot be overlooked. From the students’ point of view, if assessments happen effectively, they offer critical insights into where the student stands in their capabilities and abilities. And these insights can be used in propelling their efforts in the right direction, and help them understand their strengths and weaknesses. From the point of view of employers, assessments offer a quick summary of what someone is good at and where their strengths lie, which are important data points in helping them make a decision about whether or not candidates will be useful in their organisations.

The actual problem today is quite simple — assessments aren’t crafted with nuanced design principles in mind, they aren’t kept up to reflect the changing needs of modern reality and ultimately, they are ineffective outside of the context of using them as screening mechanisms to get a sense of who is the most competitive at being assessed, among a pool of candidates. And that in the end is not so useful anyway.

What assessments ought to do

It is critical to have a re-evaluation of where our priorities must lie in terms of what the fundamental goals of education are, from both the subjective and objective considerations. The following are my, very opinionated, views on what assessments ought to achieve:-

  1. Assessments ought to be un-opinionated. The goal of assessment must not be to force the student to be good at something. It must merely show the student where they stand in a specific subject area, without forcing them to focus on specific skills more than others. The motivation to be good at something must come from within. And it must be the student who chooses what they want to dedicate their efforts on, not an assessment that arm-wrings them into taking up an interest because it is valued more. This is just to ensure that personal growth happens in a way that it is meant to happen. One’s growth must always have strong roots in their intrinsic motivations. That is the only way it will be sustainable and constructive.
  2. Assessments ought to be multi-modal and must replicate real life activities, situations and scenarios as closely as possible. In any relevant real-world activity that we would pursue, there is always an intersection of various modalities that we must simultaneously excel at to function optimally. And assessments in a way must be training grounds in exposing a child to that reality in a controlled (or a not-so-controlled) environment throughout their growth trajectory.
  3. Assessments must balance the focus between display of individual competence in an independent context and the display of competitiveness in a population context. Both of these are important and one must not be favoured more than the other.
  4. Assessments must be open-ended in that they must allow an individual to express themselves in their own terms, thus allowing a stranger to fully witness their personality, their rationale, their competence, creativity among other qualitative aspects, all of which are pieces of information that are lost in traditional forms of assessment.
  5. Review of assessments must offer a portfolio view of the various activities and initiatives of the student across a vast time span as opposed to just offering a condensed summary of their achievements in the form of the certifications they’ve received. Of course the latter is quicker and easier to review, but it can miss the mark on showcasing the intricacies of an individual and the depth in their personality, which are non-trivial factors in helping a stranger understand their capabilities.

Overall, all of these qualities are achievable through a project-based assessment system that offers the closest simulation of real world scenarios, where challenging aspects like team work, problem-solving, novel, out-of-the-box thinking, open-ended approaches, the ability to take initiative, can all come together and happen simultaneously. And a thoroughly documented portfolio could offer intricate insights about the nuances of where the candidate’s strengths lie.

What an effective assessment model can achieve

I believe that it is a crime for us to mandate several years of irrelevant activity onto children, especially with all of those years being their formative years. And that is the crime that is happening in the name of education, because assessment techniques are forcing children to spend all their time on meaningless activity in order to pass through hoops for their very survival.

Have an effective and functional assessment model can bring the excitement to the activities that a student ought to perform and give them space to express themselves fully. And it can also offer more functional methods for employers to rely on the assessment portfolios of the candidates they’re reviewing.

And given how assessment is at the intersection of what is critical for both the subjective and objective realities surrounding education, it can very easily be the most critical component for us to focus on in our attempts to revolutionise education.

  • Students are the commodity, the educational industry constituting the institutions, regulatory boards etc., form the manufacturing industry that are responsible for the quality of the commodity, employers are the consumers, the economy and society in general are the benefactors of how effective this triangular relationship is.
  • There are two parallel considerations to education. One is the experience of the child undergoing it, where the child feels progressively empowered in their own life as a consequence of the education. And the second is how beneficial this child becomes to the society as a consequence of education. An ideal educational structure lies at the juncture of these two parallel interests. It is important to understand that one consideration can only be fulfilled if the other is also fulfilled. You cannot have one without the other.
  • Current approaches to assessments have received criticism from so many quarters. The stress of standardised tests, the meaninglessness and irrelevance of it have all had their fair share of criticism. And it’s all valid. But it could be argued that it makes the job easier for employers when they can stack one candidate on another based on simple numbers and just choose whichever one stands at the top of the stack. Makes theoretical sense, but it doesn’t always work out this way. Reducing complex human qualities into numbers that can be compared essentially has to drop out important information about that person. And that is not always good for an employer who is looking for something very specific.
  • Having a form of assessment that allows individuals to fully express themselves and present their abilities in their own way, not only allows for the fullest expression of what they’re capable of, but also allows for the audience to witness their initiative, creativity, ability to communicate, their thought process, among many other attributes that are challenging to quantify. And this can only happen when assessment is driven by the individuals undertaking it rather than a centralized body that applies uniform testing procedures on everyone. Yes, it is easier to process and compare candidates when they’re all presented in a standard format, but it doesn’t mean that that standard format must only come from standardized assessment procedures. This part needs explanation — allowing individuals to express themselves in whichever way they choose, and then indexing that presentations in a standard format can make processing them and comparing them a lot easier.
  • Assessment must move away from looking at individuals in a unidimensional way and instead look to measuring their capabilities across several dimensions of who they are and what they’re capable of. Just because it is easier to quantify and measure their abilities across one dimension, doesn’t mean that that should become the basis for comparing two individuals. It’s like searching your car keys under the street lights instead of where you lost it, just because it is easier to search lit areas.


A realistic attempt at revolutionising education cannot happen without a fundamental rethinking of how we approach assessment and evaluation of individuals.

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