The breaking news last week for the exam-centric Indian society was that there will be no year-end Board exams for Class 10 and those for Class 12 students stand postponed. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) announcement came first followed by a handful of state boards declaring the same and finally by the end of the week the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) had followed suit. Across the spectrum, be it parents, teachers or state education departments, there is consensus that postponing (or cancelling) the exams is the right decision in the middle of a raging pandemic.
Are Board Exams Necessary?
But let us step back a bit and think. Is it really necessary to conduct Board exams? What purpose do they serve? Taking this year into account, Board exams for Class 10 students stand cancelled, and in some cases postponed, for two consecutive years—have there been any repercussions? Why even have Class 12 Board exams? These exams are only held so that children are certified to have acquired certain competencies at the end of their schooling life.
But is a 60- or 90-minute test, held inside the iron gates of the exam centre at the end of a 15-year school life, the only way to assess whether or not these competencies have been acquired?
Wouldn’t all school-going children have displayed various competencies they have acquired at multiple points in time during their school years? Why cannot these be captured and documented (as is done in many mature education systems and by many progressive schools even within our own education system) and at the end of 15 years, every child who has attended school gets a school-leaving certificate based on the portfolio of, let us say, the last four years of secondary school?
Some may argue not conducting Board exams will lead to a further drop in the quality of Indian school education. But the unfortunate truth is: our exam-centric system has pushed the quality of our education so low that it cannot plumb further. Holding these exams and failing children, whom we may not have been able to teach well for 15 years, is neither going to help the students nor society at large.
This has been said for nearly a hundred years, by commission after commission, but the stakeholders are happy to maintain the status quo—either because of lack of imagination or simply because of lack of interest in finding alternatives.
The Zakir Husain committee report on Basic National Education in 1938 noted that the “system of examinations prevailing in our country has proved a curse to education”. It identified the problem and said that a bad system is made worse by awarding examinations a place of importance well beyond their utility.
Before that, at the turn of the 20th century, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy in British-ruled India, had a similar observation. The Education Policy of 1904 in its report stated that examinations had “grown to extravagant dimensions, and their influence has been allowed to dominate the whole system of education in India, with the result that instruction is confined within the rigid framework of prescribed courses, that all forms of training which do not admit of being tested by written examinations are liable to be neglected”. The malaise was so deep even then that the report had a section called ‘The abuse of examinations’. The report further noted: “examinations, as now understood, are believed to have been unknown as an instrument of general education in ancient India”.
Despite several such reports stating the obvious, we continue to remain exam-obsessed, leading ourselves into an abyss coming out of which is not easy.
Who Does this System Favour?
A key reason for lack of an overhaul is—the current system acts as a gatekeeper and favours those with socio-economic advantages. To compete in these high-stress summative assessments called Board exams, one needs exclusive cramming time and repetitive practice sessions which the ‘performing’ schools get their students to do and parents support that endeavour with extra hours and resources that go with it.
It is a national waste of time and resource as it leads to the mind getting number and not brighter. However, neither parents nor schools realize that this would not enable the child to contribute to nation-building, nor does it help them become an independent thinker, which is more crucial than ever as we progress into an uncertain 21st century.
This lack of awareness among parents and the disinclination of schools to chart the right path make sure that the system remains exam-centric and the society exam-obsessed. It also ensures that only those who can clear these high-stress exams are eligible for applying for higher education; the rest are labelled incompetent. Consequently, the same exam-centric outlook gets carried forward to the higher education system.
A Need for Overhaul
The only way our country can improve its floundering education system is by completely overhauling it.
Teaching only for tests is all that happens in our schools and this practice should be stopped. This would require an elimination of the Board exams at all levels—nothing short of it would enable us to get out of the educational malaise we are stuck in for more than a century now. And, this is the right time to do it because the ‘iron is hot’—we have not had these irrelevant Board exams, at least for Class 10, for two years (in most cases) and the National Education Policy 2020 is also firmly in place to steer the system.
Some Recent Attempts
Attempts at policy level have been made in the past to rectify the problems in our education system. During various discussions on the National Curriculum Framework 2005 and the formulation of the Right to Education Bill and finally the Right to Education Act 2009, progressive assessment ideas were recommended. But none of the major stakeholders realized how critical these reforms were.
The CBSE to its credit did attempt a few progressive steps towards reforming assessment system by making Class 10 Board exam optional nearly a decade ago, but there were few takers. Most parents felt it was better their children took the stressful Board exams! Consequently, the optional route was removed by the CBSE, and the Board went back to its regressive ways of assessing school performance.
Among the most recent documents alerting us to the criticality of assessment reforms is the National Education Policy 2020. This policy has evolved from the draft policy document that Dr K. Kasturirangan Committee submitted to the Government of India in 2019. The draft clearly stresses overhauling of our examination system and suggests a credit-based system for secondary school (as well as higher education), which would eventually eliminate the need for a one-time year-end Board exam.
Once the National testing Agency (which has already been established by the Ministry of Education) is able to provide its full array of services, it could offer assessments at various intervals each year (or on demand) so that the student can acquire the required credits in order to get a school leaving certificate. After all, one should realize that the entire theatrics of the Board exam serves just one purpose, to give students who have spent 15 years of their life going to school a school leaving certificate.
Coming back to the initial question raised in this piece— if all children, unless they have not been able to attend school regularly, are given a school leaving certificate, what is the problem? They will anyway have to write university entrance exams to get into higher education.
If they have not learnt enough to be ready for higher education, they will not get admission in a university, but at least they will have a school-leaving certificate, which is their right having spent the mandatory number of years in a school. Board exams are redundant and regressive. It is time to discard them altogether.