If the aim is to encourage critical thinking, examinations need to bring out the real potential of students and not merely test their memory.

S. Sasirekha's class XII examinations are over, but her anxiety has not reduced. She is worried about her score in Mathematics and is likely to remain so till the results are out.

“Our teacher told us that it was more than enough if we attempted solving question papers of the last five years and I did just that before the examinations. But the Mathematics question paper was nothing like any of the older papers,” says the class XII student of a government-aided school in Chennai.

A section of teachers, too, has been voicing concern about the “high difficulty level” of the State Board Mathematics paper.

The noise made by teachers and students on the issue has not only brought to focus their fears, but also highlights an obsession with centums and high scores.

“Question papers of the State Board are usually of a particular kind. Precedence has been set. When there is a stark difference, students are put off. It is not their fault, that is how they are trained,” says B. Purushothaman, principal, Everwin Matriculation.

“The number of centums will drop considerably this year, and the Education Department will blame us teachers,” says a government school teacher on condition of anonymity.

“Also, students are increasingly being made to believe that everyone can score a centum. So, many children think that a score other than centum is bad,” Mr. Purushothaman adds.

According to another school headmaster, the educational officer asked all heads in the district to buy a particular question bank in order to obtain good scores and many centums.

This attitude among teachers, students, parents and some officials of the School Education Department contradicts the State government's intentions to reform the examination system to encourage critical thinking among students. It also raises the question “What can such an evaluation and assessment system achieve?”

A. Kalanidhi, former vice-chancellor of Anna University, attributes the obsession with centums to the “rat race” going on among institutions. “Earlier, students would score centums in Mathematics. These days, centums are awarded in other subjects, too.”

Pointing to the trend of examinations having become a mere test of memory, he says: “This is not advisable for a system. This kind of competition is also the reason for the tutorial business to flourish. The truth is that such examinations do not bring out the real potential of students. The results are not really an indication of learning levels.”

The fact that many students who top board examinations do not perform as well in college supports this view. “That is because conceptual understanding is not strengthened in school. We are forced to train students to learn by rote. They come back and tell us how they find it extremely difficult to cope in college,” says the head of a local body school.

G. Balasubramanian, former director of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), who is currently involved in teacher training and development, observes that examination is a tool to assess learning competencies of children. “In today's globalised world, skills have become more important than content. Therefore, question papers should be testing students' ability to apply knowledge.”

“Content, pedagogy and evaluation are three components of education. Striking a strategic balance is very important.”

Emphasising the need to assess different learning abilities of children, he says, “Just testing content delivery, which is usually about recalling and reproducing, will not do. Evaluation has to go much beyond.”