But it is unlikely to pan out as expected.
Nepal's second experiment with a new education policy has educationists and child psychologists enthusiastic, but still rather sceptical about its long-term success. It includes a liberal promotion policy, with a continuous assessment system (CAS) instead of monster year-end exams, and is being implemented on an experimental basis in five districts.
Under the new policy, school children won't need to go through the annual exam-or, indeed, any other kind of exam-to be promoted to higher grades, until grade three. Concerned class teachers, under direct supervision of school headmasters, will now assess children's performance in the classroom and how well they're learning on a quarterly basis. A resource person (RP) appointed by the concerned District Education Office (DEO) for a cluster of 20-25 schools, observes and provides technical support to the teachers to maintain the individual portfolios for students required for continuous assessment. Under a legal provision introduced a year ago, the RP must be a secondary-level school teacher with a Bachelor's degree, In a three-year pilot phase, the new system will be tried out in 1911 primary schools in Ilam, Chitwan, Syangja, Surkhet and Kanchanpur districts, representing the five development regions.
"The continuous assessment system helps to make our education system more scientific. It allows students to learn in a joyful atmosphere by relieving them of the mental pressure of preparing for examinations, and it makes teachers more creative in their teaching methods," says Dr Hridaya Ratna Bajracharya, Executive Director of Research Centre for Educational Innovation and Development (CERID).
The need for change along the lines if the CAS, is clear in the face of alarmingly high dropout and grade repetition rates among primary school students, for both of which failure in examinations has been identified as a major cause. According to official data, the dropout rate in grade one is over 19 percent, nearly five percent in grade two, and four percent in grade three. The repetition rate for grade one is about 39 percent, 18.5 percent for grade two and 15 percent for grade three. The government hopes that the introduction of the formative evaluation system in primary schools will lower these indicators "significantly". However, it has not pre-assessed any possible outcome.
The current Ninth Five-Year Plan, under Phase II of the Basic and Primary Education Project (BPEP), envisages the introduction of formative evaluation in primary schools. This phase also includes the implementation of projects to encourage children from backward ethnic groups and under-privileged communities, the introduction of "alternative schooling" and education for special groups, and community mobilisation for education.
The only factor that threatens the success of the CAS is the fact that primary school teachers are generally not trained to carry out such assessment. A significant number are just high school graduates and have never been formally instructed in teaching methodologies or philosophies of education-according to some studies, only 46 percent of primary school teachers in Nepal are formally trained. In any case, even the formal Teacher Training available in the country doesn't impart continuous assessment skills. "In the first four months following the introduction of the CAS, we've noticed that teachers aren't really motivated to take up the method, because it's hard for a lot of them to understand it conceptually," said Laba Prasad Tripathee, Director of the Primary Education Division at the Department of Education.
Teachers involved in the pilot phase implementation of the CAS were given a five-day training on assessment and teaching methods prior to the official launch. However, headmasters who are supposed to supervise the teachers, were inexplicably left out of the training programme. Other problems such an ambitious policy change will face are inadequate infrastructure, huge class size and simply not enough teachers in rural schools. Official 1998 data shows that the national average of the teacher to student ratio in Nepal's primary schools is 39 to one, with the central, western and far western development regions burdening their teachers even more.
"Continuous assessment allows learning to be more interactive and it encourages the participation of families and communities in primary education," says Jaya Prasad Lamsal, Curriculum Officer with the Curriculum Development Centre. But, he cautions, "The lack of awareness among communities might not allow this possibility to materialise." There are other fears, too. Hridaya Ratna Bajracharya says: "Despite official commitment, decision-making has not been decentralised. This could cause trouble in implementing the CAS."
The formative evaluation system is popular in the US and Europe. Closer home, it has been successfully implemented in Japan and China. In neighbouring Bangladesh, whose economical and social development, and political functioning is quite similar to Nepal, attempts at introducing the CAS have ended in failure. Nepal first experimented with the method in 1971, when Naya Sikchhya was introduced. It was abandoned as a failed experiment after eight years of testing. This second experiment with the method, a Rs 320,000 million project, is being funded by FINIDA.