The nation has very recently witnessed the distressing matter of the question papers’ leak for examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). The dismay and anger have been justifiably widespread. In case an impression is created that this malaise affects only school-related examinations, please read on with patience.
As a case in point, during the commencement of my recently completed tenure as the vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, my immediate team and I, after relentless sleuthing in Holmes-like fashion, busted an entrance examination-related racket for a much sought after professional course. Most worryingly, the leakages had been occurring in wholesale fashion for over a decade.
The story gets murkier. To stymie the rot, I sought to link the admissions process for this particular course to either of similar entrance examinations conducted by two academic institutions of high national repute. To my mortification, both these institutions confessed to being beset by the same scourge. Nor should one infer that this is strictly a recent phenomenon, albeit the current leaks seem to be in a class by themselves. During my own time, when appearing for the CBSE school leaving examinations, some of my classmates and I were demoralised by an unnerving experience. We came to the definite conclusion that the smug smiles and accompanying loose talk of a group of four students betrayed their prior knowledge of the question papers. Their performance at the CBSE examination — highly disproportionate in the light of their average abilities — was a dead give away. Years later, I was relieved to learn that consequent to having attained alarming proportions, over the ensuing years, the racket of CBSE examination-related leaks was busted by the Delhi police. Of course, my joy has been short-lived. The recent SSC paper leak is another case in point. Such leakages seem to have acquired a hydra-like nature and have been occurring with alarming audacity in recent times.
It is clear that the challenge of preserving the sanctity of major public examinations is acquiring gargantuan proportions. The situation has the potential to develop into a tinderbox. In any case, there is a pressing need to restore faith in our institutional practices and mechanisms. How is one to tackle this widespread onslaught on the integrity of the processes associated with so many examinations of national importance? It will be worthwhile to first identify the various distortions, irregularities and malfunctions that sully an examination conducted by a public institution on a large scale. The scale here relates to both the large numbers and geographical spread.
The main issue is certainly the persistent leakages that befall numerous major examinations. However, often, the actual process of proctoring these examinations is deeply flawed. This happens in remote areas and in city centres. As the VC of Delhi University, it took enormous effort to stamp out mass copying at several examination centres of the School of Open Learning. Having large numbers of examinees is also a daunting proctorial challenge. The recent and disconcerting images from Bihar, of dangerously perched menfolk crowding upper story windows from the outside, come straight to the mind. It was apparent that the intrepid folks in those visuals were illegitimately supplying answers to the sequestered examinees. The Bihar school examination board has acquired a special notoriety, as exposed vividly by the media in recent times. Going by what has just happened, the CBSE seems to have decided to give the Bihar board a run for its money. The other issue that generally dogs such examinations is that examinees often, and in large numbers, complain about the non-conformity of a question paper to a formally prescribed syllabus. Of course, the most fearsome and worrying is the issue of the leakage of a question paper.
Howsoever formidable the challenges may be, they are easily overcome if a determined and systematic effort emanates from the affected public institutions. The solutions are not in need of rocket science. The surest and shortest path to ensure a smooth, efficient and trustworthy conduct of a large-scale public examination lies in the domain of technology. Enumerated below are the broad outlines of possible solutions for the various problems as discussed above.
On the matter of mass copying and improper proctoring, examination centres must be properly embedded with IT-based equipment. This translates into high bandwidth and internet-linked video cameras that transmit live images to a central monitoring centre and also store recordings on remote and secure servers. It also helps if these images are displayed live in local public areas for all to see. The potentially errant examinee knows that his examination may be declared null and void at any time in the future based on the video recordings. These monitoring systems should also be linked with proctoring teams that can be dispatched at short notice. Such simple procedures, wherever tried, have acted as effective deterrents.
Coming to the more important and live-wire issue of leakages of question papers, the matter warrants a one-time effort of some substance. The suggested solution will likely prove to be immune to both leakages and to the matter of not conforming to the syllabus. It will also produce very balanced question papers that shall infer fairly the true merit of a student. Additionally, it will plug potential leakages at the four most vulnerable points, which are, by the paper setter, the printer, the distributor and at the local examination centre. To begin with, for each question paper, an intelligently designed question bank must be created and updated regularly. This requires a group of seasoned subject experts and teachers to carefully create a large number of questions distributed into various categories based on levels of difficulty for reasoning and knowledge. Next, well-crafted artificial intelligence-based computer systems should be put in place to produce effortlessly an intelligent and balanced question paper just a few hours before an examination. It can then be transmitted in an encrypted format by email to individual examination centres. Each of these centres must have high-speed printers to produce the physical papers. Another alternative to eliminate printing is to have a large screen in each room on which the entire question paper can be projected.
Let me add, though, that the surest way to ensure that such problems do not ever arise is to man our institutions with highly competent individuals of integrity, and to provide our institutions with a degree of freedom and autonomy. Add to this the dire need to completely overhaul our system of education in an enlightened fashion.