A few days ago, I was invited to offer my views on states having their own education policies. Apparently, Tamil Nadu had declared its own, and not just that, had thrown it up as if in defiance of the new national education policy(NEP). Now, as most of you know, I have high hopes of this new education policy, and even as I recognise that it is not perfect, and that it is entirely possible that much of it remains on paper, I will hold on to the view that it has the potential to drag the current education system out of the current rote and repeat trap. 

I have written a lot about the NEP, so I will not repeat it as I work through the pillars of this optimism: Choice, Chance, Challenge. These were the three words I used in workshops, webinars and interviews. As long as the actions that flow from the new policy ensure that students have more choices, get more chances then, we would already have broken free of the system created traps that hamper their progress. (even if these traps were unintended consequences of good intentions). This is where challenge comes in – the established ways need to challenge themselves to move out of their comfort zone so that they can upgrade the offer to students. (An upgrade is a constant process, even the best must) 

To this end, it is only logical that state governments try to figure out their upgrades, especially schemes and initiatives that are focused on the special contexts within their state. There can be no objection to supporting, or even supplementing opportunities for learning that we can create for students. To frame a state education policy as a challenge to the centre is just playing games – if the true intent is to serve education, and the student, then these are just distractions. Indeed, in the pursuit of choice and chances for students, it makes sense to create a policy stack, starting with the district, and then onwards, including state, region and nation. The policy stack naturally needs to be aligned, but any divergence is not to be seen as dissonance, it is supplementary to the policy stack. 

Part II – Drilling down: What came before, and why the new exam needs a lighter approach

There will always be operational issues that will arise out of implementation. The grand drama of the disparity between state board level outcomes, and central board outcomes has been playing out for the past few years. There is no way of resolving that without actual data that can help compare the marks of the state board candidates, and the central board candidates. While marking schemes and moderation were called to account in past years, fundamentally, each board tests to different curricula and to different circumstances. In this scenario, it is very tough to establish whether these operate at the same standard. They probably do not – but again – where is the evidence for that. 

The NEP had set out an optional test for admissions to university – which – it seems – is being offered as mandatory now. This is a bit unnecessary from the point of view of resolving the issue of standards. The national test needs an overlap of only about a third, or less than half of students, to create adequate sampling in order to identify an adjustment number to align the marks of the various states to a single standard. Making this examination mandatory seems to be slightly heavy handed, and may be in response to a fear (entirely possible) that there may not be enough uptake of the new national admissions exam to get a valid statistical sample. Without this, it would be tough to identify the adjustment number across states. Even if this is so, the new admissions exam is in its first iteration. Many things need tweaking in a new examination. One does not always get it right in the first try. This is why, making this mandatory feels a bit premature. In addition, creating a mandate, however well intentioned, always brings unintended consequences, and many of them are being highlighted by the critics of this examination. 

The fears of the critics may be as right as the fears of those who suggested mandating this examination – but that is how policy implementation rolls. One does not work policy based on fears. The guiding principles of the policy must drive implementation. In this case, it is choice and chance. If mandating reduces choices and chances for students (and it does), then it does not stay true to the spirit of the policy. The NEP, as approved by the cabinet, itself had stated that this would be voluntary. It may not be wise to let the fears of administrators overrule the essence of the policy, at least not until the need is explicit and dire. In this case, it seems to have created space for dissonance. 

The new examination is untested. It may succeed, or its outcomes may not meet the needs of the students(and their parents), especially in a year when education has been disrupted. For example, the centralised teacher’s examination has a pass rate of about 11%-13% only, even as it is an excellent examination. We do not know the outcomes of this new examination, and how students will fare across the nation. The risk to the system is the least if this examination is a part of the portfolio of inputs that inform university admission, not if it is the whole. From the point of view of both the establishment, and of the students, it may be wise not to put all the eggs in the new, untried basket of testing. The new admissions examination too needs to prove and embed itself which takes a few years. It is these iterations that will make it trusted, and trustworthy, and so, a viable mainstream option for university admissions.  

(This note is a supplement to a TV panel discussion which I shall try to link, or shall post in a separate entry) (An OpEd in a national daily will follow this too, which is a combination of views of the co-authors, not always convergent, but stacked and layered, as policy enables)

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