29 Mar 2016 15:21 IST

Our compulsive addiction to testing

Too much of testing isn’t good. When an outfit sells its testing services, play the devil's advocate

Lord Kelvin, the father of thermodynamics in whose honour an entire temperature scale is named (Kelvin), started it all in 1883.

“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it. But when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be.”

Kelvin was talking about measurements in physics, of course, and he had strong opinions on the topic — “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now”, he had said. “All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

Well, he was right about one thing — more and more measurement. If Kelvin were to descend on Earth today, especially India, he would be shocked. Testing and measurement have taken dimensions that bear little resemblance to what he was advocating.

Education testing

Take the case of education testing. Indian students are tested a lot — in high schools, students encounter tests every month; then there are end-of-period tests, followed by mid-terms and then finals. In some subjects, there are weekly tests, with a few surprise tests thrown in for spice.

So where, pray, is the need for ‘external assessment tests’ to check your intelligence, and whether you’re ‘ready’?

But these do take place. Companies like Macmillan come up with test names so fancy that they create a sense of awe. The International Assessment for Indian Schools (IAIS), the company claims, is an “unparalleled educational measurement and assessment service to help you understand your students and their current academic (readiness)”.

I personally think this is hogwash. The education testing industry exists for the sole purpose of making money by preying on anxious parents and kids. The ‘diagnostic’ tests, some administered in children as young as the fifth grade, are meaningless because children learn new skills naturally as they grow.

Comparing the progress of one student to that of others around the country is even sillier because these tests are not used for admission to institutions of higher learning (such as IITJEE, CAT, SAT, GRE or GMAT). So, if a child in Kerala is in the 75th percentile on a math test, will it make him inferior to someone in West Bengal who scored in the 85th percentile?

The flawless model

But what this assessment industry has got completely right is the business model — it is flawless! It sells you a test to tell you how good or bad you are.

If you are good, you are likely to come back to be monitored again and buy even more tests. If you are “bad”, the company will sell you additional educational aids and sign you up for more monitoring. With no accountability, the business has zero risks. Because what are parents going to do after they buy a remedial plan for a child who is not an achiever? Sue the company? I think not.

Branding plays a key role here. The testing companies are extremely smart in assuming foreign names. As I have noted before in these columns , Indians are suckers for brands with foreign sounding names. Macmillan would never be as successful had it been called the “Sri Saraswathi Testing Company”, although the Hindu goddess is the foundation of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning.

An extreme case of assessment testing affected thousands of Indian youth recently. Three years ago, an Indian company called Educational Initiatives wanted to get into the student testing business. The idea was the same: conduct above-level assessment tests and then sell even more products and services to gullible parents.

The company paid a huge license fee to Duke University in the US to administer its Talent Search programme in India. But Duke found the experience to be so sub-par that in September 2015, it sent out a letter to parents, saying it had “made the difficult decision to discontinue a talent search based on the ASSET test, and to not offer a residential programme in India next summer”. This, after Duke received numerous complaints about how the company marketed, communicated and conducted the tests.

Hospital nightmare

Executive physical exams conducted at hospitals are another example of exploiting people’s fears. Comprehensive health check packages are sold for men and women as young as 25 years . The price always rises with age, presumably as more tests are added to the mix.

Someone over 50 is tested against standards that are more appropriate for a long distance runner. Many of these standards are borrowed directly from international bodies such as the American Medical Association, without accounting for the Indian eating, exercise and cultural habits.

Test results will obviously show substantial deviations from the standards. Consulting doctors then sell or cross-sell additional hospital services to try and bring you more in line with your “health goals”. Here too, there’s little risk in the business model because you can never hold testing hospitals accountable for anything.

If a cholesterol test shows you to be within limits, but you later experience a heart attack, can you sue the testing hospital afterwards for damages?

All this is not to say that testing has no place at all — it does. But always play devil’s advocate and ask why an outfit is selling its testing services. If a car dealership is selling a free 30-point check, you would be naive not to recognise that they have an ulterior motive.

The age old Latin expression — caveat emptor — still applies: buyers beware.

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