The long overdue school examination reforms have finally arrived. This measure was forced by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which made the gathering of large numbers of examinees in closed halls far too risky. Expectedly, there were animated discussions and debates across the country as soon as the latest examination pattern was made public.
In brief, the Central Board of Secondary Education plans to split the examination of Class 10 and Class 12 students (2021-2022) into two parts, to be held in Nov-ember-December 2021 and then in March-April 2022. The first part will comprise Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) covering 50 per cent of a rationalised syllabus while the second will consist of short and long “essay-type” questions covering the rest of the syllabus.
The real question is whether this proposal by the CBSE represents an improvement on the pre-pandemic formula of a single “board” exam. At first glance, the new pattern appears to be a reasonable solution in the present circumstances. But many teachers feel that this formula would get in the way of regular teaching and learning in the “board classes”. Exam-oriented as we are, right through the year students would be made to master the technique of answering MCQs while resourceful textbook publishers will be quick to bring out compilations of sample questions for students to use in the run-up to the “boards”. The observation of student behaviour over the past years indicates that most students will focus on practising solving these MCQs instead of studying their syllabus in depth.
Meanwhile, several teachers have started complaining about the negative effects of splitting the syllabus, although the board has given assurances that “subject experts” would be doing so after examining the “inter-connectivity of concepts and topics”.
The CBSE has taken care to cover the different scenarios that can be expected as there is a general realisation that this Covid-19 pandemic is unnervingly unpredictable. Many teachers have welcomed the alternatives that have been given in advance, in the event that the pandemic situation remains unimproved at the specified times of the exams. However, others feel that there are too many “ifs and buts” and it would have been far less stressful for those concerned if a single pattern had been prescribed, irrespective of the pandemic situation. In any case, it is unlikely that the pandemic situation will be uniform across the country at a given time.
According to the flexible pattern prescribed, the respective weightage of the two exams would depend on the relevant circumstances dictated by the pandemic condition at the time. Therefore, students do not know for sure whether their exams will be online or offline, at external exam centres or in their respective schools, and whether the essay-type questions will be set after all or whether it will be MCQs all the way.
Another probability is that there will be no board exams and the results will depend exclusively on assessment of the work done in the students’ respective schools.
Another ongoing debate is the efficacy of the MCQs. Everybody accepts that MCQs allow the testing of a larger part of the syllabus and the standardisation of such testing is far more reliable than the essay format. The marking will be neutral by design and can even be done with the help of optical readers to eliminate human error and for quicker processing. Al-so, students are not unfairly penalised for poor expression. Studies have been carried out to demonstrate that higher-order thinking skills can be assessed through properly set MCQs. Some studies using factor analyses have concluded that MCQs and essay-type questions assess the same thing. However, this conclusion has not been generally accepted (Hickson and Reed) and it is strongly believed that essays contain components of student learning that cannot be measured by the MCQs.
Even without reference to scientific studies on the comparative efficacy of MCQs and essay-type questions, experienced teachers lament the fact that students will not be able to express themselves lucidly, cogently or eloquently if they get too used to checking boxes. Further, there is no scope of being “partially right” as in an MCQ response the principle of marking is all or nothing. It is possible to get a correct answer through guesswork as the student is not required to justify it. But in an essay, a student can earn marks defending a particular point of view which may not tally with the expected response. In a particularly heated discussion that I happened to see recently, the warring speakers had to be calmed down by assuring them that neither method was fully satisfactory.
Different modes of questioning and measurement were required for holistic assessment. Everyone in the group agreed that it was imperative that the continual assessment, that is so vital in a student’s learning process, should be incorporated in the final reckoning.
Thus, it makes sense to have MCQs in mass exams but those should not be the only yardstick to measure learning. Individual differences and multiple intelligences can be taken into consideration only through the judicious and ongoing use of a variety of tools such as oral and written tests, projects, interviews, research papers, qui-zzes, and so on. The board examinations could uniformly follow the MCQ pattern as is done by the SAT exams.
However, substantial weightage must be given to the continuous work done in school or else students will end up as experts at ticking boxes without in-depth knowledge of the subject or the ability to express themselves. Incidentally, college admission in the United States does not depend on the SAT results alone — reports of the last four years of school, letters of recommendation by relevant teachers, essays and self-reports, are all taken into account. While examining the merits of the CBSE formula for Class 10 and Class 12 students of 2021-22, I have realised that as an examination-obsessed nation, we tend to get so taken up by the nuances of different modes of assessment that we often overlook the fact that our main concern should be the degree and the quality of learning....