It required the COVID-19 pandemic to disrupt the smooth rhythm of Class 10 and 12 board examinations — an indispensable annual ritual of the Indian school system. Under the present circumstances, since the choice was between conducting them as per the schedule or risking one’s life, the decision was not that difficult. However, what remains to be seen is whether the various Boards of Secondary Education (BSE) will be courageous enough to scrap these exams completely for this year or rush to “somehow” conduct the remaining ones once the lockdown is lifted.
Board exams are part of the painful collective memory of not just school-going children but their parents and teachers as well. They are associated with fear and anxiety for the following reasons: Performance in them is linked to rewards and penalty; the burden of memorising a vast body of knowledge (read information) within limited time and expressing it under stressful conditions. The stakes are high and there is no second chance.
The board or public exams were introduced by the colonial government in its attempt to standardise Indian school education. All important matters relating to school such as prescribing the curriculum, fixing the academic calendar, use of textbooks and most importantly, conducting examinations to assess students’ learning went out of the humble local school master’s control to an elaborate bureaucratic apparatus. Such exams achieved several purposes — they imbued schools and their systems of assessment with a degree of objectivity, fairness and neutrality (by making the examiner and examinee anonymous to each other), made distribution of rewards and penalties (promotion, detention of students, financial aid to school) contingent on students’ performances, and most importantly, justified success and failure.
Almost every committee set up to evaluate the Indian education system, particularly examinations, commented on the futility of such a system which put enormous pressure on children, was skewed in its emphasis, and ultimately reduced the meaning of education to memorisation and regurgitation of sterile information in textbooks. Suggestions were offered but nothing was done to implement them. More recently, the National Curriculum Framework, 2005 reiterated the need to link assessment with learning rather than have it as a stand-alone event. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) made Class 10 board exams optional for some time. The Right to Education Act, (RtE) 2009 mandated no board examinations, no detention on failure, and continuous and comprehensive evaluation of students till Class 8. These were landmark decisions, but such was the authority enjoyed by board exams, that eventually the RtE Act was amended to re-establish their supremacy and re-introduce detention.
One, therefore, needs to examine and understand the resilience of the board exams. In a grossly unequal society like India, they serve a very important social function of maintaining cohesiveness among people who are hierarchically positioned and therefore, differentially rewarded. Since the number of aspirants far outweigh the opportunities available, exam results prevent a large number of students from fulfilling their aspirations of moving up the social ladder. Failure pushes children out at different school levels. There could be innumerable reasons for failures, but exams singularly fix the responsibility on the child alone, linking it to the absence of merit and effort in the child.
Examination results of different boards show the systematic elimination of students every year, but no social unrest is ever reported following their declaration. Students denied of awards because of their performance in the board examinations rarely question or resent the fact that it is the limited number of seats which is the real problem — not their performance. The message which goes across is, “you get what you deserve”.
The boards/examining bodies need to reflect on ways to address this impasse and allay the fears and anxieties of students. While it may be more challenging to find a quick alternative for Class 12, since it marks the transition from school to college, there is no reason why at least for this year, Class 10 boards cannot be suspended. Students seeking admission to the same school should be accepted unconditionally and those desirous of changing schools may be asked to appear for an entrance test/interview. News about how the different boards are consumed with somehow conducting the remaining exams, getting the answer scripts evaluated quickly and sending powerpoint presentations to children urging them to meditate/exercise will not help — adoption of student-sensitive decisions will.
This article was published in the Indian Express Print by the title “Let’s lighten the burden”. The writer is professor and dean, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai