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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

On board exams, we need empathy and flexibility

While delay in exams could adversely impact students’ academic progress, we must also be mindful of the risks posed by the coronavirus.

Written by Ameeta Mulla Wattal |
Updated: May 28, 2021 8:14:02 am
Any delay in holding these exams has a bearing on students’ academic progress. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna, File)

We have to weigh the risks and benefits of holding the Class XII board examinations. The risks posed by the virus are hidden as well as visible in terms of its intensity in the second wave. At the same time, 14 lakh students are waiting to give the year-end exams that hold the key to their academic and career progress — two lakh among them have confirmed offers of admission to foreign universities, the rider being a year-end certificate from the CBSE.

Education systems around the world have had to stop classes in schools and universities. This break has led to a shift towards remote learning. Policymakers were supposed to put into place processes and procedures related to the end of key levels in school learning, especially gateway exams in schools and universities. But this wasn’t planned systematically and in a transparent manner.

With increasing standardisation over the years, the stakes related to board examinations have increased. Any delay in holding these exams has a bearing on students’ academic progress. It is a challenge, therefore, for school boards to rework evaluation systems. But despite innumerable education policies talking about this imperative, we have never revisited assessment and teaching practices.

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has underlined that optimising learning outcomes and the development of all students requires a change in assessment procedures. Its prescriptions include continuous tracking of learning outcomes of each child, and flexibility in board examinations. We are supposed to align our systems with the NEP and get them up and running by 2022. Some aspects of this process could have been integrated into our learning and assessment spaces, once we realised that it was becoming difficult to hold the gateway exams in March. The procedure applied for Class X could have been brought into play for Class XII, with modifications.

The International Baccalaureate and and International General Certificate of Secondary Education announced in early February their decision to not hold exams. Their assessment systems are robust, yet flexible. It is time we went beyond conversations, webinars, and seminars on NEP 2020 and worked towards aspects of its implementation, particularly in the areas of teaching-learning and assessment. Though predicted scores can only be used as an emergency measure, this is the only recourse if examinations are cancelled. The situation demands flexibility from universities. There is no perfect solution to the current predicament beyond a clear approach and a recognition that there could be more contingencies.

Of course, we have to move towards permanent changes to the exam-based system. Coursework for different levels will need to be framed and timings adjusted depending on the school’s resources and teachers. We must start moving towards school-based assessments that will help us override crises such as the one we are confronted with today.

Globally, there is a trust deficit on the issue of school assessment. There is, therefore, a need to make internal assessments more representative of students’ actual achievements. Ways must be found to increase the credibility of evaluation by teachers. The digital divide has made fairness a significant issue in assessing students. During the pandemic, there is a need to offer exemptions and make adjustments.

The CBSE’s two suggestions for holding the board examinations are based on offline methods. But isn’t it far-fetched to assume that the virus will not affect students appearing for fewer exams in a shorter period? How can we take for granted that those who give exams in their own schools are more secure compared to those who take these tests in other schools, over a longer time span? Schools may manage classrooms with fewer children. But how do they reduce the risk of the virus outside their premises? Many students do not have the luxury of private transport. They commute in groups in the metro, buses and cabs. Even in normal times, parents wait outside the school centres for their children to complete the exam. It has always been a challenge to manage crowds during examinations.

Some states are, reportedly, prioritising teachers and students for vaccinations. However, is it certain that one shot will protect them? Caseload numbers are going down slowly. But isn’t that essentially because of lockdowns and curfews? A certain amount of time has to be given after a lockdown is lifted for the situation to normalise.

Intuitively, most educators, boards and parents may want the examinations to take place but new options have to be worked out. We need immediate recovery in academic schedules, premised on the recognition that students have cleared the boards through a variety of assessment processes — predictive scores, percentiles, practicals, internal assessments of Classes XI and XII or assessments using data on a student’s performance for over a year.

Exams could also be made optional. Children who need results early can be marked on internal evaluation and given pass certificates. Those wanting to follow career paths that require term-end evaluation can do so when the situation normalises.

The NEP’s proposals on assessment systems for admission to higher education, slated to come into effect in 2022, can be advanced by a year — surely, there has been some work on how to take this proposal forward. Most higher education institutions in south India have tested and given provisional admissions to students.

We also need to work swiftly to meet the needs of children applying to foreign universities. Some universities in Canada, the US, and UK have given firm offers with no requirement of qualifying marks except a Class XII certificate validated by the board.

Normally, students are expected to join undergraduate programmes by mid-August. Their school-end results have to be received by the end of July. Last year, many students missed deadlines, even after they were stretched, and had to drop an academic year.

We cannot be insensitive to the trauma of those children who have lost their parents or loved ones. The families of some students are reeling under a financial crisis. In these trying times, let’s be the voice of calm for our children. It will help them to move forward towards a future that has been long in coming.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 28, 2021 under the title ‘Make it a less testing time’. The writer is principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, Delhi.

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