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Explained: Amid controversies over questions, a look at how CBSE papers are set

The Board has said it will review the process after last week’s Class 10 English paper featured a controversial passage. Who sets CBSE question papers, who scrutinises them, and what are the norms for the questions?

Written by Sukrita Baruah | New Delhi |
Updated: December 14, 2021 8:06:36 am
Students doing a last minute revision before appearing for 10th CBSE board examinations at a Delhi school on Saturday. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

The ongoing CBSE Term 1 examinations have so far seen two controversies surrounding question papers received by students. The first was after the Class 12 Sociology exam, when the CBSE issued a public apology and described as an “error” this question: “The unprecedented scale and spread of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 took place under which government?”

The second controversy was over a comprehension passage, criticised for being “retrograde” and offensive to women, that featured in a set of Class 10 English papers. On Monday, the Board announced that it has decided to drop this passage and award full marks to all students for questions accompanying it. It said it will be reviewing its question paper setting process. “CBSE regrets this unfortunate incident and is setting up an expert committee to thoroughly review and strengthen the question paper setting processes, to avoid such occurrences in the future,” it said in a statement on Twitter.

Who are the people involved in setting a CBSE question paper?

The process of setting a CBSE question paper involves two separate panels of subject experts for each subject: paper setters and moderators. The experts’ identities are kept confidential, even from one another, and the paper-setters do not know if the Board will use the paper set by them.

Under the CBSE’s examination by-laws, the paper-setters and moderators must:

  • Have a postgraduate degree in the concerned subject or allied subject;
  • Have a minimum of ten years’ experience of teaching the concerned subject at the secondary/senior secondary/higher education level; or be persons working in the state- or national-level education agencies set up by the government and be involved in the organisation of in-service training programmes or research/development of study materials for secondary/senior secondary students/teachers.

There is also a provision for the CBSE Chairperson to appoint “other persons in the profession related to the subject… if in the opinion of the Chairman such appointment is desirable.”

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What do the rules say about the nature of questions that can be included?

The by-laws lay down a set of instructions to paper setters and moderators, including that they shall:

  • Ensure that each question paper has been set according to the syllabus of the subject, blueprint, design and textbooks/recommended books;
  • Ensure that no question is erroneously or ambiguously worded, leading to an interpretation different from what the question intends to convey.

What is the paper setting process?

Multiple sets of question papers are prepared for each examination. The number of paper setters could vary, and each one designs a question paper. The question papers prepared by the paper-setter panel then move to the moderation phase. The moderation of question papers may be undertaken either by a team of moderators or an individual moderator.

According to the by-laws, the moderators should ensure that “each question paper has been set according to the syllabus of the subject, blueprint, design and text books/recommended books”, and complies with the unit-wise weightage given in a subject’s curriculum. The by-laws state that variations of marks, if any, under different sub-units of the subject should be kept “at the minimum”.

According to former CBSE Chairperson Ashok Ganguly, the role of the moderator is “critical”. “The moderators must make sure that questions are correct, use appropriate language, are easily understandable, and that the paper can be completed in the stipulated time. Most importantly, they are responsible for the blueprint, design and typology of the paper. The typology and design should be such that they do not provoke impressionable young minds. What is happening is that moderators seem to have become semi-skilled. They must be upgraded and trained rigorously,” he said.

It is the moderators who put together the final sets of question papers and submit these to the Board.

What is the involvement of CBSE officials in setting and selecting a question paper?

Because of confidentiality requirements, question papers go through a limited number of eyes. After the moderators submit the moderated question papers to the Board, these are not scrutinised by any Board official.

According to the by-laws, all question papers shall be in the exclusive custody of the Controller of Examinations and “other officers as may be identified by the Chairman”.

Ganguly said the Controller of Examinations randomly picks up sets of question papers to be finally used. “The Controller does not read the question papers. There is no question of a ‘decision’ per se on which question papers will be used,” he said.

Rigorous confidentiality protocols are maintained to minimise the risk of question paper leaks. The policy of multiple question paper sets to be used for the same exam is also followed to minimise risks of unfair practices. As many as nine different question paper sets may be used for the same examination, with differences between sets sometimes as minor as a different sequence of questions.

In the case of the class 10 CBSE English paper, the controversial passage appeared in one set of question papers. When the CBSE decided to drop the passage and award full marks to students for all questions accompanying it, it also announced that it would award full marks for Passage 1 for all question paper sets “to ensure uniformity and parity”.

Have there been any significant changes in the examination this year?

In the 2021-2022 session, the entire Board examination structure has been changed. While there used to be one final board examination at the end of the academic year, this year the syllabus has been rationalised and split in half, with two end-term examinations being conducted to test each half. Whereas the final board examination was usually held in February-March, this year, the Term 1 exam began in November. The Term 2 exam is scheduled for March-April 2022. There has also been a complete change in the format of the paper, and the entire paper is now in the form of multiple-choice questions.

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