The more we change, the more we seem to remain the same — or even get worse. In 2010, the government made Class 10 exams optional to mitigate exam-related stress. In February this year, the PM specially addressed students on how to beat exam stress. The pressure of examinations is bad enough. But if it is exacerbated due to systemic or technology failures — as has happened recently in the case of CBSE examinations, where some papers were apparently leaked — then one needs to sit up and take serious note.
The CBSE has assiduously built a great reputation since 1962 as one of the most credible examining bodies in the world. Its reputation and conduct explains its expansion from a body that catered initially to the educational needs of students, whose parents were employed in the central government and had transferable jobs, to an agency that has 19,350 schools in India and 211 schools abroad under its ambit. The use of NCERT’s standardised syllabus and globally acceptable grade point system have enhanced the board’s reputation. Today, it conducts the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) , which determines admission to IITs and other top engineering colleges.
What happens when one of the world’s largest school education systems is pilloried in the media for all the wrong reasons? Credibility is the first casualty. The sacred thread that binds a student, her faith in examinations and the fairness with which it is conducted, can never be traded. If question papers are leaked, the children of impressionable ages feel deeply cheated by the system as they see the perpetrators benefiting either a small or a large group from amongst them and gaining an unfair advantage over the others. Children and parents invest everything when the examinations are a major event in a student’s life.
Leaks could occur from the paper setters in connivance with the coaching classes or by breaking into the coding methods adopted or even from the examination managers. An intelligent data mining — question paper mining of the previous 10 years — using data aggregation can also generate a paper set that can mimic the actual. Coaching classes do something similar. Though this is technically not an unfair practice, it indicates the possibility of leaks.
There are some age-old methods to prevent such occurrences like setting multiple papers by unrelated examiners from different places, using encrypted codes,using special sealing techniques, which when broken leave a trail, pro-actively substituting a paper at the hint of trouble and so on. Setting multiple papers stored at two to three locations and changing the paper sets at the last minute as a practice, judiciously avoiding paper setters and examiners who either coach at home or outside for a fee, using hexa-decimal mnemonics randomly generated to code and encrypt the papers, bar coding and use of light-sensitive paints that leave a tamper trail, could all mitigate the sore points of the system. Of course, the flip side is that all this requires training and a greater understanding of the art of paper setting so that the level of difficulty of each set of papers is assuredly similar. It requires paper setters of integrity and passion.
Another practice in addition to the above is the use of technology where paper sets reach various centres through the Internet and are only made available through an encrypted code a few minutes before the examination. The requirement for a robust internet system and sufficient bandwidth would be a non-negotiable for the success of this practise. Further, high-speed photo copying machines would be needed for print versions. A significant reform would be to re-look at the entire paradigm of examinations and assess if the whole or a part of the process can be completely engaged as a proctored online event in the future, as the IT infrastructure ramps up.
Administratively speaking, the CBSE suffers from a fatal flaw in that it is not created by an act of Parliament. Therefore, its autonomy cannot be taken for granted. Its overall controlling authority is vested with the Secretary, School Education and Literacy, Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India. The Board is answerable to its governing body and functions through various committees that are advisory in nature. A proposal to make the CBSE autonomous, with a pan-India jurisdiction covering schools affiliated to it, was mooted in 2012. But this piece of legislation never saw the light of Parliament. If we need a credible system in place, making the CBSE an autonomous body, headed by eminent academics of impeccable reputation and track record, is of utmost importance.
The remedy sometimes could be worse than the disease. Since the existing system was breached, it goes without saying that it needs course correction. However, the Board seems to have landed on a sticky wicket in so far as its immediate remedial steps are concerned. In the case of Class 12 Economics paper, a repeat examination is to be held throughout the country while the re-examination of the Class 10 Maths paper is being limited to only Delhi, NCR and Haryana. The internet knows no boundaries and therefore announcing a retest, limited to only those three places, defies logic. Further, if the decision is reversed and the examination is not held, then students will require a lot of convincing and explaning as to why those from the aforementioned three places did not have an unfair advantage over others.
Repeat examinations should be held within a week’s time in order to mollify the children’s examination trauma and better plan the future. Holding it a month or two later would subject them to great stress. Besides, there are several other tests leading to professional studies, all in the months of May and June. We need student-centric solutions. Making them administrator-centric or even technology-centric can be counterproductive and unfair to say the least.
Thakur is former secretary Higher Education and Mantha is former chairman, AICTE and adjunct professor, NIAS Bengaluru.