Board examination results have lost their credibility in India. Students themselves laugh about their marks and say that they cannot fathom how these marks have been computed. A couple of years ago I had written an article on this subject, that was titled “Galloping inflation: 99 going on 100”. This year we have reached 100 — and it practically rained 100s! Does this mean that our students have been raising their academic standards exponentially over the years? The students themselves will answer this question with a resounding “no”. But do we ever learn? In 2015, social scientist Dipankar Gupta wrote a piece with the telling headline: “Inflated grades, deflated education”.
When grade inflation became a concern in the United States, someone remarked facetiously: “If gasoline prices are up and unemployment is up, why shouldn’t students’ grades be a little inflated”? But this trend is not a joke. Unfortunately, instead of trying to identify the root cause of this upward spiral, superficial remedies are being recommended. The debate over grades, marks and points is definitely over — high marks are here to stay. Theoretically it is possible to get 100 in every subject. At this rate, the average percentage of next year’s “topper” should be 100. Anyway, it surprises some people that year after year only one candidate (the topper) earns a particular average among thousands and thousands of examinees. But most people agree that with the proliferation of marks above 95, it has become next to impossible to distinguish between excellence and mediocrity. The generosity shown in this manner does not really help matters. Grace marks are now being discouraged and when awarded this will be indicated in the marksheet. Moreover, “moderation” is being done away with. But it has been seen in other countries that these steps do not really produce any lasting results. The marks curve creeps upward again for many reasons.
When everyone performs “brilliantly”, the college admissions process becomes exceedingly daunting. At the higher secondary level, many schools admit students provisionally before the board results are out. Students are selected on the basis of their school reports, a written test and an interview. In fact, it has been found that school reports are often a truer reflection of the student’s academic worth. Besides, they indicate the student’s academic performance over the years in contrast to the scores of a single examination. But now I hear that the school authorities are instructing their teachers to hike up the marks they had originally awarded “as these students should not be at a disadvantage when they apply to reputed institutions”. These practices are neither ethical, nor do they help students to improve their academic performance.
Private tuitions, intense coaching — sometimes by tutors who advertise themselves as experienced examiners and paper-setters — and diligently solving the last so many years’ question papers yield the desired results. It is shocking to hear from a student who has scored an average of 95 that she did not know anything about current events or issues and that she had not read anything other than her textbooks over the past year, because she was “preparing for the boards” and had gone on a vacation afterwards. The waning credibility of the board results plummets to greater depths when gross miscalculations come to light upon reviews that are done on demand. Newspaper reports carried examples of the appalling errors made by the CBSE.
Of the many factors that are responsible for this hyper-inflation of marks, the most obvious is the cut-throat competition between boards. Each board vies to get the larger share of the pie — seats in colleges. Then there are anxious parents and guardians who ensure that their wards are “exam-ready”. All through, the coaching centres keep doing their bit by administering mock tests and working on the deficiencies of the test takers identified from their performance at these rehearsals. Yet another reason for this absurd proliferation of 99s and 100s is the large number of candidates that appear for these examinations each year. If very high marks are not awarded to the “better” students, it would not be possible to pass a respectable number at the lower end of the scale.
What then is the solution? Leave colleges to administer their own entrance tests and not have those intimidating cut-offs? But such measures will not address the real issue of the poor quality of school education. Undoubtedly the most urgent need is to improve the quality of examinations — the quality of the questions put to the examinees and the quality of the marking of answer scripts. We hear horror stories from examiners who are told by their “chief” to give full marks even for faulty answers as they included the key words in the given marking scheme or worse, to award no marks for an answer which was correct but did not include the required key words. So much for promoting creativity and originality! In order to improve this state of affairs, teachers have to be more enlightened. This means that much more needs to be invested in training and developing teachers.
Assessing teachers through their students’ examination scores is quite an absurd proposition that has been made recently by CISCE. Teaching and learning in our schools must improve. Unless the root cause is attended to, we will continue to churn out school-leavers with excellent exam results but who are neither fit to pursue higher studies nor are fit to be employed. Genuine learning cannot take place in a situation where students are under tremendous pressure to attain higher and higher examination marks.
Instead of enjoying and making the most of the learning process, a student’s life is powerfully and relentlessly gripped by the tentacles of the examination “industry”. This thriving industry mainly comprises coaching centres, private tuitions, guide books and ready-made notes. However, our boards appear to be more than happy to maintain the status quo. So maybe it will be raining 110s next year!...