What is actually frightening has now turned into a joke — “It is probably easier to gain entry into heaven than admission into a prestigious Delhi University college.” Lady Shri Ram (LSR), a popular women’s college in New Delhi, this year announced a cut-off of 100 per cent for three of its courses, evoking awe, surprise and even cynicism. It led to questions like: Is it possible to get such scores? Is it even desirable to numerically quantify “learning” in this manner? In a one-correct-answer format, what is the scope for valuing diverse responses or perspectives? Who are these students and where do they come from? Are these marks a fair indicator of one’s ability, competence and merit? How do they gauge competence or aptitude of a student to study a particular subject in a specific college? What is the role of tuitions in escalating exam scores?
Rather than seeking answers to these questions, it’s important to recognise that board exams bring together students belonging to diverse family backgrounds, with unequal social and cultural capital and those studying in starkly different schools in terms of resources, quality of teaching, etc., on the same platform, to judge, rank and award them. Ignoring fundamental differences among students in terms of their social locations, it treats everyone uniformly, giving a false impression of impartiality, thereby legitimising both success and failure while individualising structural limitations. So, a student with 99 per cent marks on being turned away by LSR may feel sad, but not enraged or cheated because she regards the system as being essentially just. In a situation where aspirants far exceed opportunities available, board exam marks are used to eliminate some students from accessing certain educational degrees and spaces, such that students themselves ungrudgingly accept their failure as a result of their own inadequacy or incompetence.
It can be safely assumed that most high-scorers are from families equipped with social and cultural capital, are highly motivated, and proactively supported (or arranged for) in their studies. Most of them study in schools with good infrastructure and qualified teachers who also recognise the importance of marks in these exams, and, most importantly, they have acquired the “smart” way of “learning and writing” exams. Debating over whether these students are academically brilliant or not is not important. But the one thing which is certain is that in an education system where all knowledge is quantified, subject to being memorised, evaluated and ranked, these students know how to learn and present their answers. Even among the socially-culturally disadvantaged groups, the better-off ones make it to this privileged category of high scorers.
Schools in our country are either affiliated to central, regional or international boards of examination. There are variations in the socio-economic backgrounds of students studying in these schools. In addition, there are discrepancies in marks allotted to students among these boards due to policies adopted by them, impacting the future trajectories available for students. For example, even the UP board topper this year, with a score as high as 97 per cent, will not be considered eligible by LSR for some of its courses.
So, a relatively homogenous group of students gets into a particular college. Differences in caste, religion and ethnicity often get submerged under the umbrella of academic excellence.The college further ensures its exclusive status, highlights its differences from others, exerts pressure on students to secure positions in university exams, hankers after awards in inter-college competitions, aspires for top rank in college ratings and abhors weakness/limitation/failure of any kind on part of either the student or college. This leads to: Blocking a heterogenous group of students from studying together; mitigating differences, if any, and ensuring commonality; promoting a tendency among students to hide their identities; commodification of education as a brand; celebrating elitism among a select few and alienation among most others. By the time these students complete their education, most of them not just think but act alike. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that even from a distance, one can actually identify the college that a group of students belong to.
It’s time that we reflect on the kind of world we are creating through our system of “formal education, assessment and rewards” and its implications on young students. A pandemic like COVID-19 should have been a good opportunity to do that. Instead, we have preoccupied ourselves with adopting more exclusionary devices to teach students, ignoring the larger aims of education and its relationship with society.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 29, 2020 under the title “Another brick in the wall”. Nawani is professor and dean, school of education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai