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Uneven Playing Fields and Uncertain Futures

Assessment criteria used to evaluate students in Board examinations could hamper career of thousands of students, shatter their dreams of getting admission in a good institute

The boards genuinely believe that the structures of assessment they have created are fair and it is difficult to grudge them that belief. But of course they aren't fair. It is a blanket system foisted upon an immensely large and diverse group of students. (Representational Image)

Written by Soham Mukherjee and Sumanta Roy

The monsoon rolls in with a promise of relief, lakhs of school children all around India prepare to take the next big step in their careers. For many, this is accompanied by a distinct sense of dread. Will I reach the cut off for my preferred college? Will I be able to choose the course I want? Will my parents be able to afford the tuition fees? These are all questions that school leavers find themselves pondering at this time of year.

This year, these questions have taken on greater significance and are causing even more dread. With all school leaving exams standing cancelled after months of agonising indecision, it has fallen to the respective boards to come up with emergency solutions to give students due credit for their efforts. The boards, with their best possible intentions, have come up with seemingly standardised and fair assessment structures with the approval of the Supreme Court. Yet, these structures have fallen well short of those criteria. The proposed model will not only hamper the career of thousands of students but will also shatter their dreams of getting admission in a “good” college or institute.

Multiple incidents of violence and gherao in schools have been reported after the declaration of Class 12th results in West Bengal. The reason behind this is that lower scores have been given in board exams as a result of the high significance given to Class 11 marks while compiling the final tally. Students are protesting, parents are clueless, and teachers are helpless across the state.

On the flipside, in Karnataka, 2,239 students scored full marks (600/600) in their 12th board exams. While getting full marks is undoubtedly a matter of pride for not only the individual students but also their families, the inevitable question is: How will the government accommodate all these students in colleges with a fixed number of seats? This question is even more pertinent in a scenario where getting admitted to so-called prestigious institutions is already a daunting prospect for even those students who have scored high marks in their boards.

The results of Class X are also a matter of concern. In West Bengal, 90 per cent students secured first division out of which 79 students scored full marks. Now if all the students want to pursue science as their career option what will the school authority or the government do? Given the infrastructural facility and seat allocation it would be beyond impossible to accommodate all the students (even after filtering out many) in the science stream. It is the responsibility of the government to look after the loopholes in the system before putting out a tweet on how exceptionally the students have performed this year.

Political grandstanding aside, the possibility of conducting the board examinations in the home centre (which the West Bengal government announced at one point but withdrew later) was never fully explored. Perhaps, in fairness, this could have caused a divide between students from the state board and those from the central boards. Such inflationary marking, however, will inevitably lead to a crash in the future with apparently highly qualified students failing to find jobs that match their degrees. Perhaps in going forward it may be worthwhile for all stakeholders to consider better methods of evaluation. However, the obsession with exams shown by powerful figures over the last two years suggests that such a rethink of the education system is unlikely.

This is because, and this has become a trend in policy-making, the human element seems to have taken a back seat. While taking into account the marks scored in Class 10 board exams, all Class 11 exams and all Class 12 exams leading up to the boards look good on paper. But this ignores the fact that each one of these exams may have been attempted under vastly different circumstances. The full extent of the consequences of these decisions will slowly become clear with the passage of time as “standardised” methods lead to compromising on dreams and expectations.

Additionally, there are a few issues in giving each of these academic years near equal representation. The most common (and obvious) one being the fact that, in general, students tend not to take class 11 very seriously. This is a time of relaxation after the secondary board exams and the focus is on co-curricular activities or just plain truancy. Additionally, it is a commonly accepted problem in higher secondary academia that the difficulty level of the class 11 syllabus is exponentially higher than that of class 10. This means that for the average student overall performance inevitably decreases in class 11 irrespective of the amount of effort. If we look around we may find various examples of mediocre students who scored less in class 10 and 11 but scored exceptionally well in the 12th board examination. It will be difficult for those students to “adjust” in the proposed evaluation model.

As a result, a large percentage of students are certain to have lower average scores over the three academic years. To add to it, the boards seem to have fallen into an idealistic trap. An assumption has been made somewhere in the higher echelons of Indian academia along the lines of “all things being equal”; except, they are not. In trying to level the playing field, the respective boards may have caused it implode.

The boards genuinely believe that the structures of assessment they have created are fair and it is difficult to grudge them that belief. But of course they aren’t fair. It is a blanket system foisted upon an immensely large and diverse group of students.

It is a fallacy to believe that every child prepares for every exam under exactly the same circumstances. Not only are the levels of support available vastly disparate but also the possibility of external factors such as living conditions, sickness, family problems, etc. can affect preparation.
The child who has access to high-speed broadband internet and the child who had to walk to the top of a hill to be able to access an unstable 2G network cannot possibly be assumed to be starting from the same base position. According to an UNICEF report only 23 per cent of Indian households have access to the internet for the purposes of online education of children. This is accompanied by a large rural-urban and gender divide. Another survey found that 50 per cent of the Indian students (both in rural and urban areas) don’t have access to the internet. These are certainly extreme terms on which to have this discussion. Nonetheless, these are terms which cannot justifiably be ignored.

It is unfair to say that the lockdown had the same impact on every citizen in exactly the same way. Some were able to learn new skills by ordering things off the internet while many struggled to put food on the table. Some were dazzled by the bright blue screens of Netflix while many could only see a foggy vision of the future. Therefore, the respective boards’ basic foundations on which the assessment structures were built become dodgy at best.

Furthermore, if we were to discuss this issue along lines of gender disparity, it becomes even more difficult to justify such a blanket evaluation system. Over the last year and a half various surveys found that women and girls had become much more vulnerable to abuse during lockdown and Covid restrictions in general. Additionally, the patriarchal expectations of a girl helping with household chores have become intensified with her staying at home and seemingly only staring at a screen all day.

Meanwhile, as some celebrate and others despair, the world rumbles on ruthlessly. Private engineering colleges suddenly find themselves with an exceptional opportunity to increase their revenue through so-called ‘donations’ at the time of admission. Other institutes and organisations that purportedly provide cutting edge training for competitive exams will also be licking their lips. To add to this, when these students will finally graduate from college, their potential employers might hold the absence of a classroom exam against them.

This is a whole academic year of school graduates whose expectations and dreams have either been exponentially inflated or heartbreakingly deflated. What should have been a joyful, if tentative, step towards the future will be one taken with false pretences and lack of preparation.

Mukherjee is Research Scholar, IIEST, Shibpur and Roy is Research Scholar, JNU

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