In­dia’s exam sys­tem needs an over­haul, not just tin­ker­ing

The Asian Age - - Oped - Devi Kar The writer is a vet­eran school ed­u­ca­tor based in Kolkata

The re­cent CBSE ques­tion pa­per leaks are in­dica­tive of a deep­rooted and se­ri­ous dis­ease in our ex­am­i­na­tion sys­tem. But all we do is to try and iden­tify the cul­prits and think of strate­gies to pre­vent fur­ther leaks. We have ob­served the same knee- jerk re­ac­tion in other ar­eas. A child gets mo­lested in a school and the so­lu­tions of­fered are to in­stall more CCTV cam­eras and to get rid of male teach­ers. Why do we not make an at­tempt to get to the root of the prob­lem?

All said and done, our ex­am­i­na­tion sys­tem is an un­mit­i­gated disaster and our ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tional re­form has been some­what er­ratic. Ed­u­ca­tion does not get the at­ten­tion and the fund­ing that it de­serves. Most of our prob­lems stem from the lack of ed­u­ca­tion or from a faulty one. Piece­meal ed­u­ca­tional re­forms will not do any longer. If we wish to pros­per as a na­tion, we need to over­haul the cur­rent in­ef­fec­tual and dam­ag­ing ex­am­i­na­tion sys­tem. As the glob­ally re­spected thought leader in school ed­u­ca­tion Ken Robin­son says, we should now stop chat­ter­ing about dis­rup­tive tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nomic forces be­cause “se­ri­ous dis­rup­tions are needed if we are to have qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion in our time”. It is not enough to re­form — we need to “trans­form”.

In or­der to cri­tique our ex­am­i­na­tion sys­tem, we need to ar­gue from the ba­sic premise that the vast num­bers of stu­dents who ap­pear for the re­gional or na­tional board ex­am­i­na­tions are in­di­vid­u­als with var­ied strengths and weak­nesses, and dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing and learn­ing. Yet in or­der to per­form in the mass- scale board ex­ams at the end of Class 10 or Class 12 ( which in­ci­den­tally do not need any great feats of think­ing), they have to fit them­selves in the same mould and be­come clones of one an­other. The choice of dif­fer­ent clus­ters of sub­jects doesn’t do much for in­di­vid­ual cre­ativ­ity on ac­count of the run- of- themill ques­tions that are set. In­deed, if the “usual” and “ex­pected” ques­tions are not set, there would be large- scale protests and scream­ing head­lines in the news­pa­pers.

So what do these ex­am­i­na­tions re­ally achieve? In re­al­ity, the “ex­am­i­na­tion ma­chine” gen­er­ates all kinds of harm­ful con­se­quences — not least of all the weeks of teach­ing time wasted while the ex­ams are con­ducted and pa­pers marked. Chil­dren drop all the pur­suits that they en­joy well be­fore the board ex­am­i­na­tions are due. Most say that they are not al­lowed to read any­thing but their text­books or exam- re­lated ma­te­rial in their “board year”. Teach­ers stop be­ing imag­i­na­tive in the class­room as they get busy prepar­ing stu­dents for the exam. “Teach­ing to the test” im­plies find­ing out the pat­tern of ques­tion­ing from the past few years’ ques­tion pa­pers, pre­dict­ing prob­a­ble ques­tions, im­part­ing exam strate­gies in­clud­ing the trick of an­swer­ing ques­tions in a way that fetches marks. Rather than the learn­ing, it is the ex­am­i­na­tion which be­comes cen­tral. Af­ter all, a school and its teach­ers are mostly rated on the ba­sis of ex­am­i­na­tion re­sults. The me­dia makes a grand fuss over the “top­pers” — never mind if they have been coached by mul­ti­ple tu­tors. Schools bask in this glory and the an­nual cy­cle be­gins all over again, sadly for­get­ting the tragic sui­cides that take place ev­ery

Stu­dents them­selves can­not make sense of the marks or grades they have been as­signed. I have in­ter­viewed stu­dents with iden­ti­cal scores and found them to be as dif­fer­ent as chalk and cheese. Mas­ter­ing the art of writ­ing ex­ams is one thing, and grasp­ing con­cepts or ac­quir­ing knowl­edge is an­other.

ex­am­i­na­tion sea­son.

There is a gi­gan­tic in­dus­try around board ex­am­i­na­tions, com­pris­ing pri­vate tu­tors, coach­ing cen­tres, guide books, model ques­tion pa­pers with model an­swers, and now there is on­line help as well. The au­thor­i­ties may be busy try­ing to pre­vent fu­ture leaks of ques­tion pa­pers, but if pa­per set­ters are also pri­vate tu­tors and coach­ing cen­tre in­struc­tors, there is bound to be some “shar­ing”. Re­gret­tably, eth­i­cal prac­tices are nei­ther uni­form nor univer­sal. Some tu­tors like to make it known that they are reg­u­lar pa­per set­ters for a par­tic­u­lar board. And it doesn’t speak highly of par­ents’ ethics that they clam­our to send their wards to such tu­tors. The pur­pose then is not that chil­dren should learn but that by hook or by crook they should achieve high scores in these “be- all and end- all” ex­ams of their lives.

Just think of a school stu­dent’s plight in the last four years of school. He or she is tested and tested and tested on the same board syl­labus — two years for Class 10 and two years for Class 12. There are pre- board re­hearsal ex­ams in schools and mock ex­ams con­ducted by pri­vate coach­ing cen­tres. When ques­tioned, par­ents in­sist that they are merely do­ing their best for the sake of their chil­dren’s ca­reers. Their chil­dren’s fu­ture is doomed if they fail to make the cut- off scores that will make them el­i­gi­ble for the col­leges of their choice. ( It does not stop there. There is a par­al­lel school for those who wish to pre­pare for com­pet­i­tive ex­ams such as IIT, JEE, CLAT, etc. — I think school stu­dents work many more hours than adults.)

But do the exam scores in­di­cate the qual­ity of the stu­dent’s learn­ing? Grades or marks ( which are on an an­nual in­fla­tion­ary flight) do not in­di­cate any­thing ac­cu­rately. Stu­dents them­selves can­not make sense of the marks or grades they have been as­signed. I have in­ter­viewed stu­dents with iden­ti­cal scores and found them to be as dif­fer­ent as chalk and cheese. Mas­ter­ing the art of writ­ing ex­ams is one thing, and grasp­ing con­cepts or ac­quir­ing knowl­edge is an­other.

We must not ruin our chil­dren emo­tion­ally and cere­brally in this man­ner. It is the qual­ity of learn­ing and teach­ing that must be the fo­cus. As­sess­ment is ex­tremely im­por­tant, but it should hap­pen con­tin­u­ously us­ing a wide range of tools to gauge the var­ied strengths and skills of in­di­vid­ual stu­dents. Class par­tic­i­pa­tion, pre­sen­ta­tions, es­says, spot quizzes, in­ter­views, peer as­sess­ment and as­sign­ments should all con­trib­ute to the fi­nal re­port. There are many vi­tal in­tan­gi­bles that can­not be tested or mea­sured. Let not one sin­gle mass ex­am­i­na­tion de­ter­mine the fu­ture of a child. Only creative, in­no­va­tive and ur­gent in­ter­ven­tion to de­velop mean­ing­ful and hu­mane ways of as­sess­ing school stu­dents will stop dam­ag­ing their nat­u­ral tal­ents and nur­ture them in­stead.

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