The bricks in the wall: In system that reduces children to mere percentages, a look at what it is to not make the cut

According to data for 2018, the Delhi-National Capital Region has the highest concentration of CBSE schools, with the states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana accounting for nearly half of the 11,510 CBSE-affiliated schools across the country.

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri , Shradha Chettri | Updated: June 26, 2018 11:48:41 am
CBSE, CBSE exam, CBSE students, delhi university, CBSE class 12th results, CBSE class 10th results, DU admissions, DU students, DU cut-offs, education news, indian express news Going by this year’s CBSE pass percentage of 89 in Delhi-NCR, a large number of the 2,13,487 students who cleared their Class 12 would be vying for the 56,000 seats available in Delhi University’s 63 colleges. (Illustration: Debdut Mukhopadhyay)

Like every year, the Class 12 results have been a celebration of the ‘toppers’ — children with soaring percentages aiming for unrealistic cut-offs set by universities such as DU. In a system that reduces children to mere percentages, Ankita Dwivedi Johri and Shradha Chettri look at what it is to not make the cut.

On May 26, when the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) declared the results for its Class 12 examination, 12,737 students across the country got 95 per cent and above. The 18-year-old in Delhi was not one of them. Further, 72,599 candidates scored 90 per cent and above. He wasn’t among them either.

He had scored 62 per cent, making him one of the 8,46,021 teenagers who had failed to get an entry into the 90-percent club, an elite grouping whose members are being celebrated on news channels and broadsheets and whose marksheets are doing the rounds of social media.

This relentless blitzkrieg took its toll: last week, hours after the CBSE declared its Class 10 exam results, with an overall pass percentage of 86.70, three students committed suicide in separate incidents in Delhi, with police attributing the deaths to disappointment over their scores.

According to data for 2018, the Delhi-National Capital Region has the highest concentration of CBSE schools, with the states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana accounting for nearly half of the 11,510 CBSE-affiliated schools across the country.

Going by this year’s CBSE pass percentage of 89 in Delhi-NCR, a large number of the 2,13,487 students who cleared their Class 12 would be vying for the 56,000 seats available in Delhi University’s 63 colleges. That’s just CBSE — this year, 2,240 students from this region cleared the Indian School Certificate (ISC) Class 12 exams conducted by the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, besides other smaller boards such as the International Baccalaureate and the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (University of Cambridge).

This huge supply-demand mismatch, coupled with unrealistic cut-offs, will again leave hundreds of students on the margins of an education system that is designed to celebrate the ‘toppers’. Last year, the highest cut-off at Delhi University was 99.66 per cent for BSc in Electronics at Shri Guru Tegh Bahadur Khalsa College, while close to 50 colleges had cut-offs of above 95 per cent in most courses in the first list.

Where does that leave children who may have got a first division, but whose marks amount to little in the fiercely competitive world of college admissions?

“I am many things — an actor, a film enthusiast, someone with good business acumen… But now I am only one thing, a 60 per-center,” says the 18-year-old from Noida who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He talks of how his heart was never in the science subjects he studied — physics, chemistry and biology. “I was a good student till Class 10 and scored 80 per cent. I wanted to take up Commerce, but my parents forced me to do Science. I am just glad that I cleared my exams. In the last two years, all my calibre and aptitude have come undone… Everyone wants to sympathise with me, but honestly, the 62 per cent did not come as a surprise. I always knew it,” says the teenager, whose father is a businessman.

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While the 18-year-old says he wasn’t surprised, schools and parents are rarely prepared for low and middling scores that often make for the bulk of the students. This year, for instance, if 72,599 CBSE students scored 90 per cent and above, that left over 92 per cent students who had scored between 33 per cent (the passing marks) and 90 per cent.

Students say that anything less than a 90 per cent is usually met with “sympathy” but also concerns about the child’s future.

The Noida teenager has had to put up with queries and unsolicited advice from prying relatives and neighbours. “There have been suggestions to drop a year and appear for medical entrances… But my parents are keen that I get through a government college,” he says. His eldest sibling is pursuing his MBA from Amity University and another brother is enrolled at Noida International University.

“I approached DU, hoping to try for the Extra Curricular Activity quota in the drama and theatre category, but they want certificates. I have acted in films, but where do I get a certificate from?” he asks. “I am appearing for the entrance exam to Jamia Millia Islamia but that’s very competitive too. For now, I have decided to get admission to the Bachelor of Business Administration programme at a Greater Noida university,” he says. As for Delhi University, he says, “I am not very hopeful”.

Yet, Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Delhi’s Springdales School on Pusa Road, says that in her 43-year career, she has “not come across any student who hasn’t got into college”. “It’s the tragedy of our education system that we have created such a situation for our students. With unrealistically high cut-offs of 98-99 per cent, at the end of the day, there is little difference between a student with a 90 per cent and one with, say, 70 per cent because even the 90 percenter does not find a seat in the college of his or her choice,” she says.

Of the 1,185 students from her school who appeared for the Class 12 exams, 25 scored 90 per cent and above marks. The rest, she says, must be made aware of the many options they can choose from. “Students now have a chance to migrate to another college in their second and third years. I know a student who took admission in one college and then moved to another in his second year. Also, there are foreign universities that focus on SAT scores and how consistent students have been in their school life,” she says.

Manohar Lal, principal of Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, too speaks about the “multiple options” students have. “Over the years, I have seen many students change streams. Science students take up Humanities, several Commerce students take up chartered accountancy. There are also several students who do not score well in the Boards but do well in competitive exams such as medical and engineering,” says Lal, in whose school 70 per cent students have scored above 75 per cent marks.

Over the years, many who have failed to meet DU’s cut-offs have knocked on the doors of private universities, several of which have come up on the outskirts of the Capital. With lower cut-offs and individual entrance examinations, these institutions have become the mainstay for lakhs of students from Delhi and outside — but only for those who can afford them.

“I have seen many students who wouldn’t have done well in their Boards but who perform well in their graduation and later. At Amity, the eligibility for BSc in Biotechnology is 55 per cent for a Physics-Chemistry-Maths combination. We then hold an English language test and interview. There is also the option of career counselling if a student has scored less and yet wants to pursue a certain stream,” says Savita Mehta, Vice-President, Corporate Communication, at the Amity Group, adding that students with high scores and limited means are eligible for a scholarship at the university.

Other private institutions, such as Ashoka University in Sonepat, say they look at students beyond their percentages. “We value marks but also look at other things. The student might have had a bad day — he may have scored 95 per cent in most subjects but got a 60 in mathematics due to which his average drops to 85. In such a situation, we look at his profile, see if his academic performance has been sustained, what kind of extra-curricular activities the student has taken up etc,” says Pramath Sinha, co-founder of Ashoka University.

The tuition fee for Ashoka University is Rs 7 lakh per annum. At Amity University, the fee for BSc (Hons) Economics — one of its popular courses — is Rs 85,000 per semester, while for BSc (Hons) in Biotechnology it stands at Rs 63,000 per semester.

For Prateek, who has scored 61 per cent marks in Class 12, the option of a private university is “out of the question”. Says the 18-year-old who studied in a private school in Nilothi, west Delhi, “I wanted to be a doctor and even enrolled in coaching classes. But because of that, I couldn’t focus on my Class 12 syllabus. Now with 61 per cent marks, I doubt I will even get into a BSc course in DU. I didn’t do well in my medical entrance exam either. As for private medical colleges, the fee runs into several lakhs. I can’t even mention it to my father.” His father is an agent for Life Insurance Corporation of India.

With little guidance from school or home, Prateek has now turned to Google. “I have spent the past week browsing the Internet looking for ‘options for a 60 percenter’. I came across Chandigarh University, where they are offering a BSc in Agriculture — the fee is Rs 60,000 for a semester. That should work for me. But that will also mean living in a hostel. I am not sure about that,” says Prateek, whose older brother, an engineer, is struggling to find a job.

Like Prateek, Sonali, a commerce student from a government school in Gurgaon, knows private universities aren’t for her. “I knew I wouldn’t get a 90 per cent score”. “I studied very hard and when I got an aggregate of 76 per cent marks, it made me very unhappy. I wanted to pursue BCom at DU or a good government college. But then, even the topper in my school has only got around 86 per cent, so my teachers are happy,” says Sonali, adding that her parents are “satisfied” with her results.

Sonali says she has decided to prepare for her chartered accountancy exams. “I had once met a CA and really liked what he did. I will prepare for the exam and at the same time, I might enroll for a correspondence programme at Indira Gandhi National Open University,” says the eldest of three siblings.

“Students from government schools rarely go to private universities. Those who score above 85 per cent marks manage to get through some college in DU. Others enrol at the School of Open Learning (SOL) or even pursue vocational courses such as nursing,” says A K Jha, principal of Rohini’s Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, one of the better performing government schools. Of the school’s 166 students who appeared for Class 12 exams, 11 scored 90 per cent and above marks, 129 between 60 and 70 per cent.

Ashoka University’s Sinha, however, dismisses the charge that private institutions are only for the elite, saying the university offers scholarships to those who can’t afford their fees. “Many assume that they cannot afford private universities so they do not even apply. So it is up to us to communicate to them better,” he says, adding, “We have committed that next year we will give 200 scholarships.”

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What adds to this pressure of getting into the “right college” and the “right course” is the stigma attached to anything less than a 90 per cent, the “low score” magnified by the media’s relentless celebration of the ‘toppers’.

Prateek says he has kept off Facebook since the results came out. “Facebook, WhatsApp will be of no help to me right now — the talk there is all about ‘toppers’. I have to look for government colleges that have entrance exams and offer scholarships. Apart from the Internet, I not sure who can help me. I think eventually I will have to drop the year and weigh my options in 2019,” he says.

While Prateek has stayed away from social media, the 18-year-old from Noida “made it a point” to log in. “My timeline is full of conversation around results. People are putting up marksheets and even emails from universities where they have been accepted. But I am not concerned. Why should I let the world know what I am going through? I see others’ results and simply let them know my scores as well. I can’t disappear, can I?” he says.

But for these post-millenial or Gen Z students, a large part of whose lives plays out on social media, it hasn’t been easy to make peace with the nature of this platform. A 17-year-old commerce student from a leading private school in south Delhi, who scored 68 per cent marks, says, “Most of my friends have scored between 92-97 per cent marks and now there are frantic discussions on social media about who will make it to Sri Ram College of Commerce or Hindu College,” says the student whose father is a chartered accountant.

The 17-year-old, the only child of his parents, also talks about the “pressure to be all-rounders”, to be “good at everything”. “I wasn’t good at studies. I always knew that. So to make up for it, I took part in quiz competitions, school plays, and even athletics. If I didn’t do that, I would not have had the friends I have today,” says the 17-year-old, whose family moved to Delhi five years ago. “But right from my pre-boards, when I scored 64 per cent marks, I always had this fear that I may be called a ‘loser’,” he says.

It hasn’t been easy at home, he says. “On result day, my parents didn’t say much, but two days later, when my father returned from work, he was very upset. He was telling my mother about how embarrassed he was because his colleagues asked for my scores. Maybe after a week or so, I will try and discuss my options with them. My mother has been sympathetic, though. She often tells me that marks don’t matter in the larger picture,” he says, adding, “I also need time to figure out what I want to do. I am not sure. I am good at a lot of things but haven’t found my true calling.”

His mother, a homemaker, says while she understands what students today go through, “I can’t help but feel a sense of fear for my child’s future. As a parent I will encourage him and also look at universities to which he can apply, but one cannot deny the fact that the options are limited. Fortunately, my son has a good ECA record and we are planning to take him to a career counsellor soon,” she says.

With parents still coming to terms with their children’s scores and worried about their future, many of them, whom The Sunday Express got in touch with, refused to talk.

The 18-year-old from Noida believes parents too need to start thinking “differently”. “One of my friends has got a compartment in maths and another has scored 95 per cent. But that doesn’t change much between us. The problem is not with my generation, we know we are more than just a number, a percentage. It is the generation of our parents that needs to look at exams differently,” he says.

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