The National Education Policy (NEP) affirmed the government’s commitment to education reform. A key focus of the NEP is to transform assessments “from primarily testing rote memorization skills to one that is more diagnostic and tests higher-order skills.”

To be effective, these reforms must percolate beyond the national and state level to individual schools. The NEP has proposed examinations in classes 3, 5 and 8 which will test understanding of core concepts and higher-order skills and whose results will be used for ‘developmental purposes’, implying support to the teachers of these schools. Since close to 50% of students in India study in private schools, a mechanism is needed so that these schools can be supported in the process and can take greater ownership of these reforms.

Building on the NEP’s suggestion to assess and accredit all schools on the same benchmarks, we propose a mechanism by which every non-government school will be required to participate in independent annual assessments conducted by an empanelled agency. The government would empanel these assessment agencies through a transparent process based on their research-based approach, and track record of working with schools. Multiple agencies will be empanelled such that at least three are available to schools in every state. Thus, schools will necessarily have to undergo external annual assessments, but will have the flexibility to choose the specific assessment agency.

Certain classes will be compulsorily assessed (say classes 3, 5 and 8 as per the NEP), though schools may voluntarily include other classes. Based on both absolute performance and improvement compared to the previous year, each school will be given a score. For the first three years, these scores will be shared only with the school, but after that, schools will be required to share them on their website and a state standards website making this information transparently visible to parents. Once the system is well-established, the government may consider allowing greater autonomy to higher-rated schools.

All this is in line with the NEP’s call to shift from ‘the overemphasis on inputs.. (while) incorporating educational outcomes and transparent disclosure in the assessment of schools.’ A 2009 OECD report showed that systems where schools publicly announce achievement data tend to show higher levels of performance compared to systems that do not require it and will engender improvements in all schools.

How will the arrangement between the agencies and schools work? Students will be assessed in Mathematics, Science, the medium of instruction and optionally other subjects. Agencies will charge schools for these assessments within government-specified limits.

Why would parents and schools agree to pay for these assessments? Parents will receive valuable information on their children’s performance while schools will receive aggregated class-wise and comparative (anonymised) performance with other schools. Agencies would need to demonstrate value to win the school’s trust. They can do this by being responsive to their questions, explaining how their assessments measure core learning and offering additional teacher workshops. The results will be based on statistical analyses of hundreds of school tests cannot be manipulated by a few schools or an agency.

Currently, India may not have enough capable assessment agencies to support this initiative. This programme, will lead to agencies developing these capacities. Governments would hold these agencies to high standards of rigour and integrity. For example, each agency must participate in bi-annual joint conferences to add to the shared repository of cross-learnings. This will collectively enable systemic capacity building at multiple levels and help improve assessment practices and research at all levels.

Other countries too mandate schools to have learning outcomes regularly assessed by independent empanelled agencies. In Dubai, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority has empanelled agencies and mandated annual testing. Better-performing schools are allowed to charge higher fees. Dubai has used this mechanism to significantly improve its ranking in the international PISA assessment.

The proposed mechanism can be a win-win-win for students, schools and the country. Students benefit because of the focus on learning in line with career goals. The best schools get recognised while all receive feedback that helps them improve. With no additional public expenditure, the country’s assessment capabilities improve, and stakeholders align towards improving student learning levels and skills. Reliable, anonymised data on student learning – invaluable for policy-making and research – gets generated. All of this will help achieve the NEP’s vision of transforming assessments and improving student learning outcomes.