Two days after the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) announced the results for the 2016 class 12 school-leaving examinations on May 21, Ankur’s (name changed on request) father was feeling a “bit disappointed”. His mother disagreed. “We were disappointed yesterday. Today we are mostly okay,” she said. Ankur himself was dejected – more because of his parents’ reaction, than his results. “Is 92 per cent that bad?” he wonders aloud.
The stratospheric CBSE scores in the last few years, with many students getting marks in the range of 95 to 99 per cent, have set the bar abnormally high. This year’s top score of 99.4 per cent, a mere 0.2 per cent lower than CBSE’s all-time high of 99.6 per cent scored by Delh’s Sarthak Agarwal in 2014, went to Sukriti Gupta, also from the national capital. An approximate 90,000 students scored 90 per cent or above. The number of those who scored 95 per cent or more, was 14,000. In this scenario, scores in the range of 85 to 95 per cent fail to impress anymore. Or, more importantly, fail to get students into a good college with the subject of their choice. It is this fear that has nagged Avantika Sinha (name changed on request) ever since the results were announced. A Commerce student, she has her heart set on studying Economics (Honours) in one of Delhi University’s (DU) better colleges. A dream she is not sure she can realise with her 91 per cent score. “We have applied for re-valuation, but that won’t make a drastic change,” says her worried mother.
What’s wrong with a high score?
“And why shouldn’t students want high scores?” asks educationist Vineet Joshi, who was associated with the CBSE for many years. While there can be no argument against this, one can’t help but wonder: how exactly are so many students doing so well? CBSE did not respond to a mail sent by Hindustan Times, but Joshi explains, “The awareness levels of students, parents and teachers have gone up. With technological advancements, they have better access to information. The Board has been publishing previous years’ question papers and the marking scheme on the website. This too has helped students understand how to score well.” The examination pattern plays a role too. “There has been a drastic shift from descriptive-type questions to objective ones. Examination scores are directly proportional to the number of objective-type questions in the question paper,” says Dr Yagnamurthy Sreekanth, professor (Education) and head, educational survey division, Nation Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). “Interestingly even descriptive questions are turned into objective questions by specifying ‘give three reasons’, explain with ‘four examples,’ thus making it easier to score.”
On the flip side
Not everyone is convinced that this is the best evaluation of a student’s learning.
According to teachers at Delhi University, at times, high scorers actually do worse than the others. “In English, for example, they give full marks if a student has used certain key words,” says Sanam Khanna, professor of English at Kamala Nehru College. “Till a few years back we used to have an entrance examination for admission to English (Honours). I would often find that students who scored between 75 to 85 per cent in English in the Boards, performed better in the test than those who scored above 85 per cent,” she says. Khanna’s views are echoed by Sangeet Ragi, a professor of Political Science in Delhi University. Ragi cites the example of a student who had scored 100 in her class 12 political science paper, but fumbled badly in her college admission tests. “She was asked why India is called a republic and she had no answer. Neither did she know why the country is called a parliamentary democracy.”
While such cases can’t be used to argue that every CBSE high-scorer is ignorant, it does reveal the restricted scope of evaluation. “There is a need to understand the difference between knowing a subject and performing well in an exam,” says LV Sehgal, principal, Bal Bharati Public School. Joshi feels it depends on the question paper really. “If a question paper has not been designed well, a high score does not indicate a good knowledge of the subject, but a good knowledge of the answers to the questions being asked.”
According to him, what is of concern is not that students are scoring well or how they are doing so, but the fact that question papers may have failed to keep pace with the awareness levels of the students. “There is definitely a pattern evolving in the question papers administered by Boards and students’ ability to crack this with the help of coaching institutions and private tuitions,” says Sreekanth.
For students who like a challenge, this can be frustrating. “It seems we are promoting mediocrity. All we are teaching our children is to mug up notes for examinations, not the application of their knowledge. Teachers and examiners often appear not to appreciate original thinking,” says Geetanjali Kumar, counselling psychologist. For a Board like the CBSE, however, which caters to a wide clientele, change is not easy, says Joshi. “We have to tread a fine balance between enabling students to answer questions and allowing the brighter among them to exercise their original thinking.”
What lies ahead
Admission to Delhi University colleges opens on June 1. While the cut-off percentages for this year are yet to be announced, if the last few years are any indication, entry isn’t going to be easy. Because it is in the national capital, DU is on the priority list of students not just in the city, but from across the country. Last year St Stephen’s set a first cut-off of 99 per cent for admission to English (Honours). The first cut-off for Economics was 98.5 per cent. For admission to Computer Science, the first cut-off in many DU colleges was 100 per cent. Latika Panghal, whose twins – one son and one daughter – scored 94.5 per cent this year, has made her peace with the fact that they might not find a berth in one of DU’s better colleges. The twins, both of whom studied Commerce, will be sent abroad for further studies. The real problem here, feels Joshi, are not the soaring scores, but the use of these scores as license for college entry. “We need to differentiate between exit and entrance examinations. Class 10 and 12 serve as exit exams and are not competitive exams. Whereas entrance exams are competitive and students should prove themselves in order to get admission to any college,” agrees Sreekanth. The number of colleges compared to the number of students is another stumbling point.
A total of 10,67,900 appeared for the CBSE class 12 exams this year, of which 92 per cent cleared the tests. The maximum number of students who appeared for the exams were from Delhi. In comparison, there are only 63 colleges in Delhi University with a total of 54,000 seats. Many private universities have opened up. A few good ones may take some of the burden off DU.
The pressure to perform and the scores – high and low – impact students in various ways. Kumar’s phone has not stopped ringing since the results were announced. “Those who get what they consider low scores, often suffer from low self-esteem,” she says. But the high-fliers aren’t without their own problems. “Such high scores often make them over-confident. They lose the urge to excel. Or the need to remain at the top is so dominant that they become insecure of other good students.” she says. Kumar’s advice to parents ever since the CBSE class 12 results came out has been to read Vasant Kallola’s It’s Okay to Fail My Son – a book where the protagonist prepares his son to rise above the mediocre. The system needs to stop stamping everyone with the uniform definition of success. Today that definition is a 99 per cent CBSE score.
A sorry state of highs and lows: How state Board scores compare with CBSE
Mitali Gopani, a student in Mumbai, scored 88.83 per cent in her class 12 Higher Secondary (HSC) exams under the Maharashtra Board last year, putting her third in her class at Jai Hind college. She still almost didn’t make it into the course of her choice — Bachelor of Commerce (Accounting and Finance).
“I had studied hard all year and scored well, but the cut-off was 91 per cent,” says the 20-year-old. “I was waitlisted, and the wait was agonising. Thankfully there were a few empty seats left after the three merit lists came out and I got a seat.”
As a parent it is difficult to see your child suffer this kind of stress, says Mitali’s father, Rakesh. “And it’s stressful for us too. There should be a way to ensure that marks are actually indicative of aptitude and not just freely dispersed.”
In Maharashtra, many more students take the HSC state board exam instead of the all-India CBSE and ISC — indeed the number is pegged as almost 80 times more. So results season is an annual face-off.
All-India Board examiners are known to be more liberal with their marks, so these students score much more than their counterparts from the state Boards. As a result, in Mumbai, even those who top their institutes in the state’s HSC Board exams may find it difficult to get into the stream of their choice in the college of their choice.
Most states in the country have their own state Boards. While examination and evaluation patterns vary across the different Boards, most are known to be less liberal with marks than CBSE and ISC. There are exceptions though. Of a total of 4,60,743 students who appeared for the class 12 Board exams in the Kerala Board, as many as 9,870 scored A grade in all subjects. Out of these 125 students scored 100 per cent marks. The West Bengal Board, traditionally known for its tough marking, has changed its exam pattern, to keep up with CBSE and ISC. The Higher Secondary (HS) topper from West Bengal Board scored 99 per cent this year, while 0.6 per cent of HS candidates scored above 90 per cent marks. Comparatively though, more students from CBSE and ISC continue to score in nineties than those from the West Bengal Board.
Teachers across the country feel that the soaring scores create an unhealthy degree of competition among students. “It’s become so intense, it’s down to every .001 percent difference,” says Deepshikha Srivastava, principal of Mumbai’s Rajhans Vidyalaya CBSE board school and junior college. In Mumbai, as top scores have risen across Boards, colleges have seen cut-offs rise by as much as 7 percentage points in the last year. “The current system is hurting a lot of bright students because they are left feeling they’re not really intelligent, based on their percentage scores,” adds Ashok Wadia, principal of Jai Hind College. What’s needed urgently, say principals, is a more uniform syllabus leading to a more uniform marking system across Boards.
(With inputs from Joanna Lobo; Mou Chakraborty and Ramesh Babu)