Opinion Op Ed 17 Apr 2018 India’s exam syste ...
The writer is a veteran school educator based in Kolkata

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

Published Apr 17, 2018, 7:28 am IST
Updated Apr 17, 2018, 7:28 am IST
It is the quality of learning and teaching that must be the focus.
Students block a road during a protest against CBSE paper leak. (Photo: PTI)
 Students block a road during a protest against CBSE paper leak. (Photo: PTI)

The recent CBSE question paper leaks are indicative of a deep-rooted 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-the-mill 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 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.