If the industrial age was characterized by increased specialization and standardization, then the post-industrial modern age — often referred to as the information age — is subject to even greater specialization and standardization. Since education forms the very foundation of this information age, one should expect greater standardization and specialization in the production and delivery of education.
The present educational system evolved in simpler times when technologies were comparatively rudimentary. All you had were books, blackboards, and hard-copy libraries as teaching and learning tools, and live teachers giving real-time instructions. Now we have (the possibility of) broadband access to the world wide web, electronic libraries, distance education, radio, TV, CDs, DVDs. Things that were not written about or heard about just a generation ago. The tools and technological capabilities have evolved astonishingly. Therefore the educational process cannot but be subject to radical change as well.
One such change that I foresee is that of the separation of instruction and testing. Allow me to elaborate on that. Currently, educational institutions deliver instruction and at specific intervals, test the student and certify whether or not the student has successfully internalized the instructions and to what degree. The success of an institution can be judged by how many students pass the tests. The institution therefore has an incentive to declare as many students successful as
it can subject only to a ‘reputation constraint’. That is, if it graduates a lot of ill-prepared students, then the institution will be seen to have low standards and will not be able to attract high quality students. Thus, an Ivy League school will set high standards, while a small-town community college will have relatively lax standards.
Reputation is hard currency. It takes time to build up a store of reputation and conversely one can coast along on one’s store of reputation for a long time without actually delivering. There is significant time lag between actually delivering quality and being recognized as one who delivers quality. That is one problem with the ‘reputation constraint’. The other
problem is that for reputation to work, informational requirements are high. One has to have information about the reputation of a school or college for one to make an informed judgment about it. In a world where there are thousands of schools and colleges, this could prove costly.
The point is that the basic charter of a school (I will use the generic ‘school’ to refer to any educational institution) is to instruct or deliver education. That the school also tests the students it instructs and then declares whether or not any specific student has met the standards that the school sets is an unfortunate fact that is taken for granted. It is my contention that in the information age, the time has come when schools should de-link instruction from testing, and should concentrate only on instruction and leave the testing to institutions that are specialized in testing.
There are many examples of testing institutions. One familiar example is the “Educational Testing Services” (ETS) in the US which administers, among others, the GRE and TOEFL exams around the world. In India, we have common admission tests such as the Joint Entrance Exams for the IITs. These are all entrance tests and not exit tests. They are standardized tests the results of which are used by schools for judging how well the student is prepared for the next course of education.
To be sure, for high schools, there are standard “boards” such as such as the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) which conduct “exit” tests for high school students in India. The problem is not that some standard testing and certification agencies do not exist but rather that too many “standards” exist.
For the moment, I will leave aside the question of how many standards are right and who will set them. For the sake of argument I will assume that it is possible to evolve one standard for a particular educational level. Then it would make eminent sense for a school to just concentrate on delivering instruction and to leave the testing to the testing agency.
One can argue that given the advances in information and communications technologies it is possible — not just that, it is necessary — to bring about a radical change in the education process and one component of that change has to be the standardization of tests and specialization of testing. The advantages of this would be many and I will explore them in the next post.