Board exams are not merely an annual ritual. They also shape the daily life of millions of classrooms, forcing teachers to direct all pedagogic effort towards the single goal of cracking the question paper with the help of well-rehearsed, crammed answers. The public examination, taken by a ‘board’, has become an integral part of modern India’s culture, permeating every aspect of life, from parenting to scheduling of elections. Over the last 100 years, our exam system has withstood numerous attempts to reform it. No panel — since the Sadler Commission set up in 1919 — has failed to criticise the exam system and hold it responsible for defeating the State’s efforts to improve the quality of education. A paradox underlies such criticisms. While the exam system is disliked, institutions that conduct their exams with rigour are believed to have high standards. This paradox permits the exam system to survive and flourish. Each time an attempt is made to loosen its grip on teachers and students, it bounces back.
The latest episode of this kind concerns the Class X board exam. Once upon a time, it used to mark the end of schooling. The question why children should face the stress of going through two board exams within two years, i.e. in Class X and then XII, led to the consensus that the Class X exam should not be compulsory. Those who don’t want to take it can move on after a school-based exam. Criticism of this modest reform started soon after the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) introduced it. State boards ignored the move and remained indifferent to the philosophy behind it. Many private schools adopted the idea but few took the steps necessary to improve teachers’ capacity to design imaginative questions for class tests. The Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS) which runs over 1,000 well-functioning schools remained committed to its policy of assiduously drilling students for high scores in board exams. A few months ago, KVS was reported to be ready to use punitive transfer of principals whose schools’ performance in board exams is less than spectacular.
Such policies remind us that our system of education continues to be guided by instincts of the colonial era. The exam system acquired its present shape in the latter half the 19th century. Insulating teachers from the evaluation of their own students was meant to give an impression of fairness. The world has moved on, but we remain stuck to the exam culture we have been used to. The chronic neglect of teacher training has granted both longevity and tenacity to the old exam system. Every time a little bit of progress is made towards reforming it, institutional and political forces come together to resist and reverse it.
Right to Education
A parallel story is unfolding at the elementary level where the Right to Education (RTE) Act has made eight years of school education (from Class I to VIII) a fundamental right of every child. RTE opens a new chapter in India’s social history by introducing several measures that have the potential to transform the institutional structure and climate of elementary education.
One of these measures is to replace the exam system with Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE). This approach places a sensitive responsibility on teachers of young children to become observant and aware of the diverse ways in which children learn. CCE calls for good record keeping that might permit a teacher and parents to notice a child’s trajectory of interest and progress.
How CCE is to be implemented in different areas of knowledge is demonstrated in NCERT’s series of sourcebooks and other material. Instead of using these, CBSE came out with its own package. State governments also joined the fray to invent CCE strategies. Lack of coordination and clarity on roles and responsibilities expectedly resulted in systemic chaos. An avalanche of tests has swept away what little leisure our children have. In the meanwhile, demand for repealing CCE and amending RTE to bring the old ‘pass-fail’ system has been voiced on different political platforms. This demand now threatens to impose an old Board-like exam at the end of Class VIII and a ‘pass-fail’ system in earlier classes.
If the Class X board exam becomes compulsory once again and the ‘pass-fail’ system returns to the elementary classes, we should not feel surprised, but we have every reason to feel sorry. This will not be the first time that the attempt to soften India’s exam culture would have failed.
Many earlier efforts met with similar fate. The new episode gives us an opportunity to contemplate why the exam system is so tenacious and why our institutional and social climate is so much at peace with the ‘pass-fail’ system. Answers to these questions can partly be found in the sharp inequalities and divisions that characterize our socio-economic structure.
The public examination system creates a semblance of parity among students belonging to sharply unequal social backgrounds. The schools where they study are also unequal in terms of infrastructure and quality of teaching.
A public exam conducted with utmost secrecy over the question paper and the process of evaluation signals objectivity and fairness towards all. It encourages annoying practices such as cramming, coaching and cheating. Curbing them is possible only to a limited extent in an ethos of intense competition for scarce opportunities.
Krishna Kumar is former director of NCERT and professor of education at Delhi University. His latest book is Education, Conflict and Peace
The views are personal