If it is any consolation, leaks of examination question papers is not uniquely an Indian phenomenon. It also happens in countries which generally follow the rule of law. Last year, the head of one of England’s top exam boards was in apology mode after leaks hit two of its A-Level examinations. Mathematics and economics papers were apparently leaked hours before some 60,000 pupils took their exams. One British newspaper noted that Snapchat images of the maths paper in question were allegedly being shared the night before the exam, and a photo of a question was also available online. In 2016, exam papers for Britain’s Higher English tests had to be replaced at short notice amid concerns some questions were leaked.
However, this does not detract from the disarray that the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) finds itself in right now. The alleged “leaks” of examination papers, even if limited, have caused immense trauma to lakhs of students and their parents. There is some relief for those who sat for their Class 10 exams. The board has decided not to have a retest for the Class 10 mathematics examination. However, at the time of writing, CBSE Class 12 students would have to retake the economics paper on April 25. As expected, an investigation is under way and the government has set up a high-powered committee to suggest measures on how the board exams can be made secure and foolproof through the use of technology.
In the short term, everything possible needs to be done to ensure that subsequent batches of students do not face a similar trauma.
But why squander a crisis? Why not let this be a wake-up call to drastically rejig how we evaluate students?
It is common knowledge that cheating during board exams is by no means uncommon in India. There is a cottage industry of coaching centres, tutors and desperate students routinely pay big bribes to try and get hold of test papers. Students commit suicides because they fear their marks in the Class 12 exam would not be good enough and that they would disappoint their parents.
“I am sorry as I could not live up to your expectations and for not being able to fulfil your dreams. I love my grandparents the most and please do take good care of them,” wrote Karanvir Singh, an 18-year-old resident of Mohali in a poignant suicide note that he left behind before hanging himself from a ceiling fan after his Class-12 physics exam this March.
The young man was reportedly shattered because he had not been able to attempt three questions of three marks each in the board exam.
A few years ago, the Bihar police arrested many who had been trying to scale the walls of schools and give study materials to their relatives while exams were in progress.
Undoubtedly, there are millions of honest students who study hard for their exams and it is unfair to tar everyone with the same brush.
But the real tragedy is our unquestioning acceptance of a system which subjects young boys and girls to gruelling rote-learning and seeks to punish them if they can’t keep pace.
It is easy to say that high marks do not necessarily reflect brilliance, but if high marks is going to be the filter used to determine who gets into which course and in which college, marks will continue to be viewed as a life and death matter, even if they are the end-products of uncritical rote learning or desperate measures to circumvent the system.
You can’t blame students for thinking that their entire school life boils down to how they fare in this one exam. That has to change.
Imagine if there was continuous evaluation and questions which would require a student to apply his/her mind instead of just reproducing something he or she had mugged up in one exam, viewed as the be-all and end-all. What if it didn’t matter whether you knew the questions a few hours beforehand, and the answers were aimed at testing basic understanding of concepts?
This would require teachers to teach and schools to be functional. And as we know, and as study after study tells us, this is far from the reality. As the NGO Pratham reminds us, year after year, students in this country spend most of their time memorising a syllabus with no thought given to learning or playing and that textbook knowledge, rigid ideas, and test scores take precedence over open debates and logical reasoning.
There have been mounting concerns about student learning outcomes, teacher training, curriculum quality, assessment of learning achievements, and so on, but despite everything, there has not been any real structural reforms of the CBSE examination system, and the way we assess students at the end of their school years.
Doing away with rote-learning, developing a spirit of critical enquiry, moving towards a system that focuses on academic process rather than marks in just one exam may seem utopian at this point. But seriously, is there an alternative if every Indian boy or girl, and not just the privileged few who can afford expensive private schools, are to have a fighting chance for survival in an increasingly competitive world?
As of now, a student can cram and cheat his/her way to “success” without understanding or knowing anything worthwhile. If this continues, then we will be adding to the millions of “educated” but unemployable youth. Unlike in earlier decades, these young people have high aspirations. Creating job opportunities is going to be crucial but even more crucial will be to make sure that those coming out of schools and colleges are equipped for the jobs of the future. Drastic measures have to be taken to make sure that there is no incentive for cheating in exams and that the evaluation doesn’t favour the crammer and the cheater.
An opportunity lurks in every crisis; and the graver the crisis, the better the opportunity can be. Here’s hoping the latest crisis affecting the CBSE does not go wasted....