Studying versus learning in a world that counts marks

Aman Sethi, Shradha Chettri
Saumya Khandelwal

It was the first week of a new session for the class 12 students at the Government Girls' Senior Secondary School in Sangam Vihar, and the English teacher was appalled.

"I can't believe it, you didn't take notes," she exclaimed.

"You never told us," fifty young girls cried out in righteous unison.

"The lesson," the teacher said, her patience fraying, "is called note-making!"

When class ended, the girls were still perplexed. In their eyes, their teacher had said "note making and summary" was an 8-mark question in their board exams. But she had not given them the answer.

At no point did their teacher tell them that "note-making", the 8-mark question, was the same thing as 'taking notes' — what each student does every day, each in their own individual way.

"In class 12," said Nikki Chandrashekhar, a chatty young girl who sat through the class, "Everything — how to sit, read, eat, sleep — is a board exam question."

In Sangam Vihar, 152 teachers try their best to educate 5700 girls crammed into 64 classrooms.

In Sangam Vihar, 152 teachers try their best to educate 5700 girls crammed into 64 classrooms.

Education or filtration?

Economists tend to think to think of schooling in two ways: a 'human capital function' that imparts knowledge, and a 'screening function' that helps prospective employers find suitable employees.

There are many ways to screen for ability, but in India there is one that dominates: the Board exams. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is so obsessed with testing that it recently proposed to introduce standardised board-style testing from class 6 to accustom students to exam-taking from an early age.

But the more emphasis a system places on a single exam, the greater the incentives for teachers, students and schools to game it by teaching to the test, till the learning and the screening functions become essentially meaningless: i.e. children don't learn anything except how to crack that one particular test, and their exam scores are poor indicators of their education.

Hence, the most common complaint against our current system — the Board exam is a poor measure of ability.

"In India, we essentially have a world-class filtration system in place of an education system," said Kartik Muralidharan, associate professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego. Muralidharan explained that as the screening functions of one test — like the Board exam — erodes, the system introduces fresh hurdles in the form of new tests — to get into an IIT, or AIIMS, or the civil services.

"Ultimately when you arrive at the top 0.1% of a billion-strong distribution, you are bound to find some very talented people," Muralidharan added.

This microscopic elite — such as the Indian engineers in Silicon Valley — are then held up as a vindication of the whole system.

Next year's board exams have already taken over Nikki Chandrashekhar's life. Listen in as she shares her fears and dreams.

In Nikki's school in Sangam Vihar, where an understaffed teacher corps struggles to educate 5700 girls packed 90-to-a-classroom, the 'student-filtration system' starts early, and then works overtime.

"We focus on those who may fail, and those who can come first. For everyone else, we urge the girls to seek us out whenever they can," Nasreen Bano, teacher.

Bano, who teaches political science, says she spotted Nikki in class 11, when she realised that the student was brilliant but was struggling to write clearly. "Fix your spellings I told her, and brush up your writing."

Nikki comes from a family of non-readers and juggles her studies with housework: her father is awaiting a kidney transplant while her mother and elder sister work twelve hours a day at a cloth-mill in Okhla, snipping stray threads from denim jeans meant for export.

For her, attention from a teacher like Bano was transformative. Nikki took to dropping by the staffroom to sit with Bano whenever she had a free period. By the end of the year, Nikki topped her class 11 exams.

Who would you help?

"If you want to make it out of a government school, make sure you get into class 11 A, B, or C," said Priyanka Rai, a former student and school topper, who graduated with 95.6% marks.

These three sections are comprised of students who scored very well in class 10 grades, which means class sizes are smaller, which means, "you get a bench to sit on."

Once you have a bench, Rai said, you can turn your attention to more important things like listening to the lesson and asking questions.

With an average of 90 girls in each classroom, most students sit cross-legged on the floor.

With an average of 90 girls in each classroom, most students sit cross-legged on the floor.

This year, 12A and B have 45 students between them, 12C has another 55; 12D has 93 girls crammed into the same space — while some sit on a single row of benches on either side of the class; most of the girls sit cross-legged on a dusty rug spread.

"The girls in A, B, and C will be able to speak to their teacher," Rai said, "Their teacher will have time to check their notebooks, to clear their doubts. Everyone else will have a disadvantage even before they give their exam."

The girls who do well garner a disproportionate amount of school resources, while the girls who struggle are left behind. Rai said the pattern was established as early as class 6. "Teachers decide, this child studies, this child doesn't study."

"Teachers are human too," said a Hindi teacher. "Maybe, we subconsciously focus on the children who we think are more interested in studies."

There are 1,500 girls in class 9, the teacher pointed out, the sections run from A to N.

Who do you help — the girl who might just become an IAS officer, or the one who definitely won't?

- Hindi teacher, Sangam Vihar.

But can you foretell the future of a teenage girl?

Nikki epitomises this dilemma: she was struggling, but when she received special attention, she topped the school. Imagine if she had received more help earlier. Or on the flip-side, what if her school had given up on her too early?

Nikki at home with her neighbour and Chandrashekhar, her father.

Nikki at home with her neighbour and Chandrashekhar, her father.

This conundrum is pivotal to the success of a new policy enacted by the Delhi government. A programme called, Chunauti 2018, will group middle-school children at similar learning stages in the same section. But, will the schools ensure that struggling children receive more attention, as the government insists, or will they now have an excuse to label them as "poor learners" and write them off?

"Ultimately it depends on whether we have enough teachers," said a school official, pointing out that the school was functioning at 75 percent of its sanctioned teaching staff. "We are short by 50 teachers. If I push all my teachers one way, what happens to everyone else?"

Teaching to the test

If a teacher has 90 girls in her class and wants them all to pass, she needs to get creative. As a first step, she condenses her syllabus down into its smallest scoreable components using the "marking scheme" distributed by the CBSE.

This "marking scheme", the preface of which urges both students and teachers to read it carefully, lays out exactly how every answer to every question of every subject in a board exam must be marked.

"CBSE gives marks for steps. They give marks for format," an accounts teacher told her class one morning. "Even if you don't know the answer, at least do the steps and stick to the format." In some cases, the teacher reminded the students, the final answer is worth only half a mark.

The results aren't pretty, but for students like Nikki, the system offers a certain ruthless clarity. Like a batsman chasing a high score, the trick is to keep the scoreboard ticking on the tough questions, and hit the easy ones for the maximum. Do well, and you get a pass out of Sangam Vihar to the world that lies beyond.

In classes as large as these, students struggle to get the teacher's attention.

In classes as large as these, students struggle to get the teacher's attention.

Muralidharan, the economist, agrees that the emphasis on examinations is twisting India's schooling system out of shape. "But if you completely take away exams, the elites will find different ways of signalling," he said.

For now, the view from Nikki's school is not unlike the engine room of a listing ship. The waves crash against its hull, sometimes the rudder doesn't work, the lifeboats are leaky, but the crew is determined, and somehow the vessel floats on.

"Don't panic, I will give you a mantra," said a history teacher to reassure a nervous humanities class, "There are three 8-mark questions where you simply have to read a passage, and give the answer. That's 28 marks where the answer is in the question paper itself."

Then, there is a map for five marks.

"So let's learn the map today and we'll have 33 percent." And the result pleases her.

"That's it. We've all passed; now we have the rest of year to do the course."