When the board exams begin

A. Mariyam Alavi
Sanchit Khanna, Saumya Khandelwal

In April 2017, HT began following the Class of 2018. Today, as the board exams begin, we circle back to check on them as they prepare for the big test.

A heroic effort

Nikki Chandrashekhar, 17, was a vision of confidence, as she walked into the library on a Wednesday morning. Her anxiety from when term began in April last year had been replaced by a quiet assurance.

"I am very confident now. I am not scared," Nikki said. "I have done okay in my pre-boards, I know I will score better in the board exams."

When the year began, there was a real fear that Nikki, like her sister Jyoti, would have to sacrifice her education despite coming first in her Class XI exams. Her father was unwell, and her family was struggling to make ends meet.

But her family put in a heroic effort to ensure she stayed in school. Her mother and her sister worked long hours at a garment factory in Okhla, her sick father worked as a tailor on days he felt better, and Nikki helped out with all the housework.

Nikki said that she had learnt that studies weren't everything.

"I used to get nervous, but not anymore. I realised the more I worried, the worse I did, and the more I worried," Nikki said. "I take time out to relax. I talk to friends. I discuss things about the future."

Nikki hopes to do well enough in her board exams to qualify for an honours degree in either Hindi or Political Science.

"I want to become a school teacher," she said. "I would like to go to Gargi College. I have heard of it. They say it is a good college, not just for studies but extracurricular activities well."

Her school years passed in a mono-manic focus on nailing her exams.

"I never participated in any cultural programmes in school, like song or dance," Nikki said. "I was too shy. I would like to participate in college."

But her dreams hinge on her scoring well in her boards: Gargi College had a cut off of 85% for Hindi Honours, and 95 for Political Science last year.

If Nikki succeeds, it will fulfil a collective dream that she and her family have long cherished.

Finally, a teacher

Anuj Gupta, who did very poorly in his summative exams in physics and chemistry, has improved leaps and bounds since. He has scored over 70% in both the subjects during the pre-board exams.

The reason for this improvement, Anuj said, is something that many outside the government school system take for granted: Well-trained, qualified, and experienced teachers.

Anuj was disheartened, but not surprised, when he received his summative assessment results in October. He hadn't had a permanent teacher for physics and chemistry since his school term began.

The Government Boys Senior Secondary School in Sangam Vihar, where he studies, had tried to make do by assigning junior teachers to teach Class 12. But as Anuj's results showed: the experiment had failed.

Delhi's schools have only 34,681 permanent teachers for 61,674 posts. The city also employs almost 18,000 guest teachers and another 4,000 contractual teachers under the Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan on short-term contracts, meaning that there are around 5,000 vacancies. Many of these vacancies, government officials admit, are for trained science teachers for Class 11 and Class 12.

"It is difficult to hire postgraduate teachers who teach class 11 and 12," said Saumya Gupta, Delhi's director of education. "They make lakhs teaching at tuition centres, so they are not interested in teaching in government schools."

Even if eligible candidates were interested in teaching in Delhi schools, a tangled web of litigation has meant that the Delhi government cannot actually hire permanent school teachers. Only the office of the Lieutenant Governor can. Even this process is stalled, as the government and the governor cannot agree on the best way hire new instructors.

Anuj's predicament is a vivid illustration of the real consequences of the political battle between the Bharatiya Janta Party's central government, and Delhi's elected representatives from the Aam Aadmi Party.

Anuj's class was finally assigned science teachers in the last week of November. His marks immediately improved.

"I have done much better in my pre-boards," he said. "I am not worried about my board exams anymore."

Doing better in his pre-board examinations has done wonders for Anuj's confidence. His dream of enrolling in a Bachelors of Pharmarcy programme from a reputed institute seems achievable once more. He now has a new goal: to improve his spoken English.

"I plan to join a spoken English course during the little break we will get. So that I can speak with 'attitude' when I go to college, and impress everybody," he said.

The limits of YouTube

In July last year, Reena hit upon a novel way to improve her maths scores: YouTube videos. "I didn't have a maths tutor at the time," Reena said. "So I searched for maths solutions online."

It didn't work.

"I didn't do well in the pre-boards," she said, last month. "I have started going to these new tuition classes, where the sir explains everything well, and gives us a lot of extra questions to solve."

Maths has haunted Reena since she was seven.

"I couldn't understand division and fractions," she had said, in an interview earlier in the year. Division, numerous studies have shown, is one of the hardest concepts to teach young children. Children who struggle early on find it harder and harder to keep up in subsequent lessons.

Ten years on, as Reena prepares for her board exams, months of worry about her exams have taken their toll. Reena, who studies commerce at the Sangam Vihar school, has lost weight and seems to be losing sleep.

"Her father keeps telling her to eat. Else she will fall ill. She doesn't eat on time or properly. She says she has to study," said Reena's mother, Rekha.

The stress gives her frequent headaches. Of late, Reena said, she can't seem to write fast enough – something she never mentioned before. In her pre-boards in January, she skipped questions worth 27 marks in her accounts paper.

"What will I do if it's a lengthy question paper?" she said. "I keep practicing to increase my speed. I try and solve one or two question papers in a day, while timing myself."

For now she's trying not to think too much about college admissions, but is focusing on the break between the board examination and the time results are announced. It will be her first real break after a year of intense study.

"I'm going to my village in Madhubani," she said. "My sister has asked to come meet her in Mumbai after that. My brother in law works for the actor Jeetendra's construction company. Hopefully I will get to meet other movie stars. Maybe even my favourites- Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, and Sonakshi Sinha."

The virtues of self reliance

The tallest hurdle preventing Abdul Basit from acing his Board exams is boredom. The exam is just not challenging enough for this seventeen year old who wants to go to an Indian Institute of Technology.

"The boards are about how much and how well you can mug things up and then regurgitate them," he said one afternoon at the Shaheed Amir Chand Government School at Ludlow Castle, where he studies computer science.

Basit's assessment of the examination is not far from the mark. Educationists and researchers worry that basing a student's future on the outcome of one formulaic examination is distorting the Indian education system by making students expert exam takers, rather than teaching them to think critically.

Basit's experience suggests that the system actively weeds out creative thinkers by forcing them to spend hours memorizing subjects they have little interest in. Those hoping to study further must then sit for separate tests like the specialised competitive entrance tests meant for students of engineering.

"Competitive entrance tests are about your problem-solving skills and your ability to apply logic. I think I am better at problem solving, so hopefully I'll make it," Basit said. "My concern is computer science for the board exam. I understand the subject. I can apply it as well. But I haven't memorised the answers."

Ironically, computer science is Basit's strongest subject. He was introduced to computers in middle-school, and was soon writing his own programs. When he couldn't think his way out a problem, he would download algorithm-design manuals on his father's smartphone figure out a solution.

But intuitively understanding a subject is clearly not enough to do well in the board exams.

At a time when students spend most of their day shuttling between school and tuitions, Basit has decided to study by himself. The son of a widowed father who makes and supplies car antennaes to shops in Kashmere gate, Basit has long been comfortable with plotting out his academic trajectory himself. This self-reliance is handy in Delhi's public school system.

Ludlow Castle is one of Delhi's government schools with large airy labs, computer rooms, and even a swimming pool. But is also plagued by the teacher shortages common to many of Delhi's schools.

"No matter which school you go to, you have to rely on yourself," Basit said. "You have to study yourself."