Current Events · Education

Do We Really Need the Board Examinations?

Now that the CBSE, ICSE and many other state boards in India have declared their results for class XII and X, and the students are busy figuring out next options for their academic pursuits and choices, it is appropriate time to re-up this piece I had written three years ago.

Since I wrote this piece I had one more opportunity of closely working with another young student in my family, my nephew who recently passed his class XII CBSE board examination with good percentage. The experience of helping him in his studies and going through his curriculum and textbooks, especially in the subject areas I am somewhat familiar with, helped me gain even better understanding of how much examination related stress these children experience even when their parents and other family members themselves don’t put any pressure.

The stress is all around them: in the way the conversations happen at school with teachers and peers; in the way many teachers only ‘teach for the test’; in the way the ‘coaching’ institutes start sending promotional materials for ‘test preparation’, ‘career options’, ‘how to score 95% and above’ etc. It is not easy to escape from such pressure and stress. 

In this article, I question the relevance of this system of board examinations itself. 

A slightly different version was published on 27th August 2014 at Newsinsight.net


Exam-study

A meaningful student assessment is essential for a robust and rigorous education system. In a country the size of India with its huge student population spread across millions of schools, the problem of summative assessment offers serious challenges, especially in senior classes when students’ decisions for college education are at stake. The situation is aggravated because of severe shortage of ‘seats’ available in good colleges, creating cut-throat competition (and extreme stress for students and their parents).

How to ensure that all students get a level playing field when it comes to being assessed on their ‘learning’? Following the British model, we have a system of large-scale public examinations which are conducted by different “boards” at the Central or State level. Students attending classes X and XII in schools affiliated to the respective board must take the “board” examinations at the end of the academic year. A few years ago, students of class X in schools affiliated to CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) were given a choice to opt-out of the public examination.

Conducting these examinations is a massive exercise in planning, organizing and implementation. But a tough question must be asked – are these examinations really able to assess the students or are they simply being used as a means to narrow down the pool of contestants for the very limited seats available in ‘good’ colleges?

A quick look at the last few years’ first cut-off lists for admissions to various programmes offered by the colleges of Delhi University tells us that only students who score higher than 95% (in some subjects, it goes as high as 98% or even 100%) have any chance to get a pick of their preferred college or subject. Rest have to either wait for second, third, fourth lists or pick a subject with a lower cut-off (which in some cases may not be even their second, third or fourth choice).

It is assumed that a higher percentage in the class XII board examination must reflect a higher intelligence or more developed analytical, reasoning or thinking skills. While that may be true in some cases, it may not be so always.

Two years ago, while helping my niece prepare for her class XII examination (CBSE), I became acutely aware of how the examination system is biased against certain types of learner temperaments and learning styles. I looked closely through some of the previous years’ question papers in subjects like Economics and English, and also heard from my niece some of the ‘advice’ her teachers had been giving in order to help ‘prepare’ for the boards.

This is what she told me when after a lesson on the topic of Elasticity of Demand I asked her to try and explain something in her own words – “But my teacher says we should try to stick as close to the definition given in the textbook, so it is better if I memorize that. Why bother with my words?”

Students who can memorise well stand a very good chance at scoring high in these examinations. If they can also follow the prescribed word limit given in the question paper, that’s another big plus. Obviously, this is most easily accomplished when one can memorize perfectly the content from the assigned textbook. The textbooks incidentally are also written in a ‘test-friendly’ format, even including the sample questions from previous years’ examination papers. So ‘teaching to the test’ is now made simpler! Whether one has understood or assimilated the material well is secondary, what matters is how accurately the material is retained and faithfully reproduced in the examination under the given time restrictions.

Such a standardized system of examination doesn’t assess the actual learning. It primarily separates the learners in two categories – good test-takers, and not-so-good test takers. Since these exam results are the main criteria for college admissions, it only ends up creating fear and stress among students who feel they aren’t as smart as their peers capable of ‘scoring’ well in the exams.

I suggest that the whole premise behind an external, standardized system of testing be questioned. It is based on a problematic notion that only an external body and not the actual teachers/schools that were responsible for the education of the students can ‘test’ the students ‘objectively’.

Over time, students and teachers generally develop a comfortable relationship, sharing concerns and problems, and offering helpful advice and suggestions. This human and humane aspect of teaching-learning experience can be effectively channelized for designing a meaningful assessment system. The ‘subjectivity’ and ‘inter-relational’ nature of educational experience should be seen as a strength in student assessment.

A flexibly designed ‘internal’ school-based assessment system will allow more creativity in ‘testing’ the student ability to assimilate, apply and express the learned material. Because each school will be responsible for only its own students, and each teacher will be responsible for only those students he/she has been working with, assessment can be designed keeping in consideration a variety of learning styles. For example, students who are better at languages can be asked to write critical reviews or essays, those with greater analytical intelligence may be given research-based assignments or a series of thoughtfully designed multiple-choice questions. Students more inclined toward hands-on-learning may be asked to design an application of some sort, while appropriate projects may be assigned to visual and auditory learners. As and when appropriate a combination of open-book and oral tests may also be used.

In addition to term-end examinations, formative assessments may be done regularly through small, impromptu quizzes and tests during the classroom instruction time. Extended projects that help students better assimilate the learned material and apply their innate creativity may be incorporated. Thoughtfully prepared rubric may be used to assess student participation in group discussions.

A combination of marks/letter-grades and narrative feedback on student performance may be incorporated. The teacher should be asked to comment on the student’s ability to comprehend, analyse, synthesize, apply and express. This may be converted to a grading scheme (as determined by a school committee in charge of student assessment) for the purpose of preparing final mark-sheet which the student can submit with college admission application. The good thing in such a mark-sheet may be that students’ final marks would be shown as a range (e.g. Letter-grade ‘A’ could mean 85% and above, B could be 75%-85%, and so on, as pre-determined by the school). Such a system acknowledges the range of difference in the levels of overall intellectual capability, and doesn’t try to reduce the wide range to minuscule point to point differences.

Can this be done in an average class of 45-50 students? Or by a teacher responsible for a much larger number of students enrolled in different sections of a class? It surely can. What is first required is an intent to make the change. Rest will follow accordingly.

The college admissions process also needs re-examining. Much needs to be done to expand the availability of good quality learning opportunities in higher education. Colleges may be encouraged to increase the size of their departments by hiring more faculty and adding more seats to accommodate the growing student population. The ridiculously high cut-off percentages encouraged by the present system must go away.

In place of the present system where colleges disclose their admission cut-off percentage after a review of all the applications received, perhaps they should solicit applications from only those candidates who have scored a particular grade, say B or above (75% and above) on their school mark-sheet. This could vary across subjects, and individual colleges may decide their application cut-off percentage according to their pre-determined criteria. This will reduce some of the pressure students presently feel at the time of admissions. An increased availability of good quality programmes and courses and a wider range of options available for students may also ease the pressure.

Some colleges already use a system of entrance examination and student interview for admission to specific subject areas (in addition to the board examination results). This may be expanded further because it helps assess student capability more directly rather than relying solely on his/her capacity to score well in a standardized test.

Final decision for admission could be based on a combination of student school result (say, 30% or 40%) and their performance in the entrance examination and interview. The entrance exam could test both general student capability and aptitude for the subject in which admission is being sought.

Let us not push the youngsters toward a mind-set that suggests that the way to succeed is to do better than their peers, which is what our present system of board examination indirectly encourages. Let us help them realize that the way to get ahead is by exceeding one’s own limits and recognizing one’s unique strengths and capabilities. Let us create an assessment system that motivates learners to do better, not better than others.

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15 thoughts on “Do We Really Need the Board Examinations?

  1. he high cut off of Delhi university has always baffled me. We definitely need more seats and faculty to cater to the high demand. One other drawback I realize now because of memorizing answers is that I am really bad at explaining stuffs in my own way. And this is not a good thing in a technical field. I wish there was more hands on training during schools, more focus on interpersonal skills and sports. The focus on studies is important, but not too much on marks and ranking.

    1. Thank you Raj for sharing your perspective, I especially appreciate hearing your personal experience. It is too bad really that our system doesn’t encourage more applied learning. Trying to explain things in our own ways can be a big help in developing certain mental faculties which the system doesn’t encourage. We really don’t encourage a well rounded learning and student development. And as for the DU cutoffs…well, the system is totally messed up really, the whole point is to keep as many students out as possible.

      Hopefully things will change in future…but somehow I don’t feel so optimistic in this area. Sad.

  2. I think none of us as parents really want Board exams and the entire drama around studying to score xyz percentage. As you pointed out, this system is not oriented towards learning but only towards scoring. I am wondering what any of us can do about it. This is the way Indian education system is. No educationist or HRD Minister till now has even looked at the curriculum or method of teaching in any other manner.

    1. For some reason, education is not really a politically rewarding subject, so no govt is very keen to shake up things too much in this area and so the status quo continues without any rethinking in any deep manner. Only a few little reforms here and there are often seen and that too in some small ways, just to keep the appearance that one govt/political party knows more or better than the other! Unless parents, teachers and students themselves figure out a way to make the need for educational rethinking a mass movement, no govt will lift a finger to do anything. In India the biggest problem in Education is too much centralisation. A lot of decentratlisation is needed so that changes can be made at smaller district levels. Even though education as such is a state subject, even states in India are too big an entity to do anything meaningful like facilitating real learning in schools.

      So even though I wrote this piece three years back or even worked on my little book which speaks of a complete rethinking of education in India, I am keenly aware that a very strong public movement needs to first build up in order for any serious change to happen in education.

  3. It is indeed the flaw with the education system , where we push the child to score really high.. IS this really our definition of ecelling? IF yes, then surely we arent on the right path are we??? Our curriculum is flawed in many a ways too…

  4. We certainly have not been on the right path as far as mainstream education is concerned. Though there are some good aspects to the system, the overall focus is very skewed and emphasises a lop-sided development of the children/learners. This results is many problems, including the fact that most of our fresh graduates from premier engineering and and other professional courses remain awfully underdeveloped in their people skills and other soft skills necessary to do well in real-world. So even that aspect of “job-oriented” educational development we are not able to do well! What to speak of other areas of human development like physical, emotional, spiritual etc which should all be parts of good educational experience. Let’s hope things change in the decades to come. But as I mentioned in my previous response to Rachna, a big public call for such big change is a pre-requisite because governments are often not really interested in rocking the boat of education as far as the fundamental changes are concerned like curriculum, assessment etc. Any reforms they may do will be done because of reasons other than academic/intellectual, they will remain guided by short-term political gains! Sad state of affairs, really.

  5. I have not understood the way education department works, as you said too much pressure is put on .. and I also feel that what we study in school actually does not help much in life. maybe I am wrong but thats how i feel. instead of all that cramming amd putting so much info into little minds maybe we should work on specialising.

    like abroad , here you have 4 or 5 subjects which then go to 3 so you specialise in them much more worthwhile later in life ..

    Bikram’s

    1. There are some good things Indian system can borrow from elsewhere but the biggest problem, as I understand, is that we haven’t really figured out a system that works well with the Indian cultural and social psyche. Most of our mainstream system is a poor copy of the British system which we inherited and we have perhaps made it even worse because of not understanding how to adapt parts of it, throw some other parts of it and rethink some other parts….instead we have created a mish-mash, a hodge podge of things which are highly unsuitable given our population pressures, our social-cultural ethos, our economic situation, everything. No easy solutions in sight…but we have to keep the hope that some good will come in the decades to come.

      Good to see you on the blog, Bikram, after quite a while. Hope you have been well. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. That is an extremely smart written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and return to learn extra of your useful information. Thank you for the post. I will certainly return.

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