I have always believed that meaningful analysis of good quality data collected for the right purpose is indispensable for supporting meso- and macro-level evidence-based decisions in education.
In recent times however, data collection is becoming an end in itself, with the daily announcement of a new portal demanding fresh data from schools and other government educational institutions.
Such ventures, initiated ostensibly for improving school quality and student learning, are futile, because the relationship between data collection and school-level quality improvement is spurious.
In recent years, what initially began as a ‘festival’ of data collection has today spiralled uncontrollably; the excessive, unbridled and entropic nature of data collection drives has become a ‘malaise’.
Two years ago, a state education secretary told me that he had the classroom assessment grades of each of the 60 lakh school children in his state on his laptop, and that it enabled centralised monitoring of their learning outcomes. He did not take it kindly when asked how the database would help rural students to improve their learning.
My ‘unjustified’ cynicism was countered with a description of the impact of monitoring on grade improvement (from D to C, B and A) of lakhs of school children over a six-month period ending April this year.
I am not sure if the secretary knew that teachers had been advised by the district-and block-level educational administrators to ensure an upward swing in student performance figures by the end of the academic year.
In some states, teachers go to the extent of showing low internal assessment grades for many children in the beginning of the academic year to enable the graphical display of a healthy trend in the ‘improvement’ in student performance by the end of the year.
One wonders if it is naivety that is feeding the conviction that the frequent measurement of learning outcomes will foster their improvement. Or, is this an attempt to take refuge behind the heavy curtain of data measurement and processing so as to appear ‘busy’ with highly technical work and fancy presentations while ignoring the real underlying causes of poor teaching quality and low levels of student learning?
Measuring student learning outcomes is important, and achievement surveys can provide valuable information about broad trends and potential problem areas, but the question is whether attention should be focused exclusively on aggregation and centralised analysis of assessment data which fails to provide insight into the mode of improvement of classroom level processes.
Student learning can be improved only by implementing changes in existing classroom teaching practices in schools.
The data collection overdrive appears to be a case of ‘when we can’t do much about an issue, let’s at least collect data’.
Examples of such needless data collection abound in our education system: Several states collect and digitise copious information about each school annually or bi-annually through long checklists of 75-100 diverse indicators.
By the time data entry is completed, it is time for the next round of data collection.
Such an exercise only succeeds in creating an illusion about being actively engaged in the noble task of improving school quality. Mere collection of more and more data will not create a culture of evidence-based decision making.
Mindless ‘upward’ transmission of school level data through block and district levels only conditions the bottom of the pyramid (the teachers) to rationalise that their contribution to quality improvement is confined to format-filling (at the last count each school needed to fill in 40-50 formats!) and that suggestions for improving school functioning would be provided by the higher authorities after data analysis.
The capacity of the education system is limited. Currently, most education functionaries from teachers to state-level leaders are prioritising data collection over other important systemic aspects that urgently need reformation.
The skewed focus on data collection needs to be rectified: Resources, energy and strategic thinking must be invested to facilitate transformative changes in the teaching-learning process in government schools through initiatives leading to strengthening of teacher education and improvement of school-based assessments. The basic unit for effective improvement of student learning is each individual school itself.
Dhir Jhingran is Director Language and Learning Foundation and a former IAS officer.
The views are personal