January 10 was the first day in many months when Vinika, a student in Class 12 at Sangam Vihar's Government Girls' Senior Secondary School, did not take a morning shower. She wasn't rushed; she wasn't out of water; but she wasn't spotlessly clean, either. She was afraid—that the water would wash away her knowledge.
Last month's pre-Board exams provoked a range of irrational and bizarre rituals. In the run up to the Class 12 Board exams starting on March 5, many students and parents are practicing their own set of rituals and rules.
When a student's entire academic performance is judged by a single set of exams — as happens in the Indian Board system — hard work is not enough to set students' minds at ease. What draws them to the supernatural, more than anything else, is fear.
For Sangam Vihar's students, doing badly in the Board exams could mean a lifetime of menial labour.
Across the country, Class 12 students give at least one pre-Board exam, which is designed to acquaint them with the three-hour-long Boards. These, in turn, are used as a basis for admission to many colleges.
Education experts say that the current system, which relies almost entirely on a student's academic performance during a single day, places them under a needless degree of stress.
"Fear of the exam pushes some students to take solace in rituals and practices that they feel gives them confidence," said Poonam Batra, professor of education at Delhi University.
Vinika (who requested a pseudonym to speak freely about her superstitions) is one of the around ten lakh students who will sit for the CBSE Class 12 Board exams starting from March 5. She is not the only one to put faith in a practice that has nothing to do with how much she has studied.
Vishal Jha, a Class 12 student, has not had a haircut for two months and does not intend to get one till the Board exams are over.
"I have this belief that whatever I have studied and remembered will go away if I cut my hair," said Jha, much to the amusement of his fellow schoolmates sitting in a first-floor classroom during a break between two classes. "I also don't shower on the day of exam for the same reason. Of course I know there is no substitute for studying hard, but these practices give me confidence."
The two commonest rituals among students are eating curd and sugar before leaving for an exam and using a pen of a specific brand and same writing board for years.
Simran, a Class 12 student from Ludlow Castle Number 2, has been using the same writing board that she bought in Class 8. The writing board, with pictures of a teenage Hollywood star on it, has worn out at the corners, but Simran plans to continue using it.
"I will use the same writing board when I give civil services exam after finishing my under graduation from Delhi University," she said. "It has been lucky for me."
If an affluent student does poorly on the Board exam, his or her parents may well spend whatever money is necessary for private higher education. Students from Sangam Vihar are not so lucky: if they don't score the high marks required by government colleges, they may have to go straight into whatever menial jobs are immediately available.
"I have to score good in the exams otherwise I won't get admission in a regular college and may have to take up driving auto-rickshaw like many others," said Lucky, a Class 12 student from Commerce stream. "A college degree may not ensure a job, but it will make me eligible for better jobs."
If Lucky wants to study Commerce or Economics in any of the 63 DU colleges, he will have to score at least 90%. Most Humanities and Commerce colleges outside Delhi also give admission based on Class 12 marks, although the cut-off may not be as high as the one at DU.
The admissions committee at DU has been contemplating the introduction of an entrance test for admission, since some of the committee's members argue Board marks may not be the best indicator of a student's capability. The process is being held up by logistical concerns.
"We cannot do much because we get around two-three lakhs applications for 56,000 seats," said a member of the admissions committee on condition of anonymity. "We might start a screening test for each subject with a minimum eligibility, so that only those who have aptitude in the subject clear it and become eligible for admission."
Even then, the university would still rely on the Board marks to establish a cut-off for eligible students. "This process will eliminate some really high scorers but with no aptitude for the subject," the committee member said. "This will make the cut-off realistic. But at present Board marks are the only uniform and fair criteria for admission."
Teachers, students, parents all agree that the Board exams are a poor measure of intelligence and aptitude, but the test persists.
Krishna Kumar, former head of National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), said that experts have suggested that colleges should not use the Board marks for admission. "In as early as the 1950s and 1960s, the Mudaliar Commission on Secondary Education and the Kothari Commission suggested that final Board exam should be only a school leaving certificate and not be used for admission to institutes of higher studies," he said.
The National Curriculum Framework 2005, set up by the NCERT, noted that "the board examinations negatively influence all testing and assessment throughout the school years, beginning with pre-school".
It also said the Boards could work towards 'on-demand' examinations in which students can take the tests as and when they feel prepared.
Disha Nawani, chairperson at the Centre for Education at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said that although Board exams largely test the ability of a student to memorize textbooks, its results are regarded as a genuine measure of a person's ability.
"This is because these are public exams conducted by an agency outside school," she said, "which bases its neutrality and impartiality on the fact that teachers are kept out completely from the process of assessing those children they know and have taught."
Despite this appearance of objectivity, Nawani said that Board exams will continue to be important only so long as they perform a corrosive social function: keeping millions of aspiring students out of the race to strive for limited rewards.
"It's a system which neither assesses learning nor supports [learning], but it's largely a system of elimination, a system which applies balm on those who get eliminated, so that they accept failure as being the result of their own limitations and not systemic constraints."