The long road to examination reforms

The social ethos injects the young and their parents with a deep sense of insecurity early in life. Teachers start instilling the fear of examination from primary grades onwards. Photo: S. Subramanium  

The flogging of Vanita, a Class XII student in Tiruchi, by a temple priest figures in a recent article in Frontline ( >Ritual whipping , issue of November 6). Vanita’s parents are anxious about the Board examinations she is going to face soon. Apparently, the parents believe that an evil spirit has entered Vanita and they expect that she will be able to study harder after receiving a few lashes from a priest. The Frontline story places the ritual flogging of girls and women by a temple authority in the larger context of patriarchy and the superstitions it promotes. Education is expected to remedy the perpetuation of the beliefs and practices through which patriarchy operates, but education can hardly do this when its own rituals are no less ossified and oppressive. The ritual which has proved highly resistant to reforms is that of the Board examinations. It is also the ritual which acts like a termite to destroy any reform efforts in curriculum and teacher training. The ritual of the Board examinations has been shaping the annual as well as everyday life of our schools and colleges since colonial days. And, it has proved remarkably resilient.

Let us look at some of the components of this powerful ritual. Every school follows a seasonal calendar to ensure that all actors — the principal, teachers, students and their parents — remain alert to their roles in the ritual. The principal ensures that teachers exercise no agency or autonomy in deciding the number of periods they will take to complete a topic. The number ordained by the Board is religiously complied with. I cannot think of a principal who exercises leadership to encourage teachers to take howsoever long they want in order to sustain children’s interest in a topic. Teachers who want, or actually try, to do such a thing, end up being told by either the principal or the parents that children’s time is being wasted. The message is simple: “Focus on the final Board examinations.” Children begin to feel its power as soon as they enter Class I in the primary school or even earlier, in the nursery. By the time they come to the higher secondary level, the students themselves become convinced that marks, and marks alone, matter. Colleges and universities do not consider it necessary to apply their mind to assess the student’s potential. They go by the student’s Board marks. Not surprisingly, parents push children to work for the highest possible aggregate, rather than to pursue individual interest. This kind of pushing destroys the student’s awareness of his or her own special yearning.

Fear of examination

The social ethos injects the young and their parents with a deep sense of insecurity early in life. Teachers start instilling the fear of examination from primary grades onwards. The culture of continuous testing engulfs the primary school curriculum, and in quite a few States the primary classes end with a Board examination. The latest example of a State contemplating this is Delhi. The justification being given is that a Board examination will make teachers work hard. Directorates of education typically believe that teachers cannot be trusted to teach well unless they are scared of their students doing badly in a Board examination. Elite private schools and even Kendriya Vidyalayas use the stick of punitive measures to ensure that teachers concentrate on pushing students to improve their scores. There are no takers for the view that any examination or assessment procedure should make both teachers and students aware of what is to be done next. Such a view would naturally contradict the clandestine procedures adopted by Boards. From paper-setting to evaluation, every step is cloaked in secrecy — and this is what counts as rigour. Those who justify the prevailing system argue that it induces competitiveness. Of course it does, but at the colossal cost of burning out the natural desire to learn in millions of children. They learn early that it pays to act like a mindless robot. Among teachers, the prevailing pattern conveys the message that they cannot be trusted to assess their own students. Board examinations force even the best of teachers to act like coaches and drill masters.

The National Curriculum Framework (NCF-2005) traces the source of a wide range of systemic ills in the public examination system. The NCF attributes the social Darwinist ideology (which says that only the fittest should survive) of our system to the manner in which examinations are conducted by the different Boards. The ideology of social Darwinism is totally incompatible with the Constitution’s vision which asks us to regard every child as a valued participant in the democratic order. If we were guided by the Constitution, we would nurture whatever potential a child has, rather than stigmatise millions by labelling them ‘failed.’ The NCF also criticises the examination system as an obstacle to curricular reform.

Ever since the NCF was approved by the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), the NCERT has been anxious about examination reform. The NCERT’s new syllabi and textbooks require a whole new approach to evaluation. These new textbooks encourage children to reflect on problems, to recognise multiple perspectives and to develop the skills required to engage with the debates arising out of such multiplicity of viewpoints in different disciplines. The kind of learning such textbooks encourage cannot be evaluated through the ritual of our traditional examination system. This is why the NCERT tried to develop a dialogue with the CBSE so that a change might be brought about in the typology of the question papers, in the quality of questions, and in the mode of evaluation itself.

Why this struggle has borne limited fruit is an important question to ponder on at this point when the CBSE is planning to make the Class X Board examination optional and to replace marks with grades. This and all other reforms currently under discussion depend for their success on teachers, especially on how much freedom they will be permitted to exercise and how their responsibility will be defined. This is where a huge systemic challenge lies buried. It consists of giving teachers the autonomy to teach and to equip them, through sensible training, with the capacity to cultivate in children the freedom and the desire to learn. The prevailing system obstructs both these freedoms by assigning a fixed number of periods and marks to each topic in the syllabus.

This problem reminds us of the overlapping roles of institutions. When the NCERT prepared its new textbooks, it did so by first designing new syllabi on the basis of the radical perspective on knowledge and learning articulated in NCF-2005. The NCERT’s syllabus did not assign marks to topics, nor did it specify the number of periods within which a topic should be completed. To do so would have been a violation of the NCF perspective according to which a teacher should have the freedom and the skills of time management so that knowledge can be experientially assimilated by children. The NCF also talks about letting individual children learn at their own different paces, instead of rushing them as a herd from topic to topic. As in the past, the CBSE went through the exercise of ‘adopting’ the new NCERT syllabus in every subject, breaking it up into topics and sub-topics, each carrying a specified label of marks and periods.

The story of the CBSE is no different from that of other Boards. They all need to reflect on the pedagogic and epistemological constraints they themselves place on teachers and children by assigning marks to each and every topic and sub-topic and by imposing a tight and arbitrary time-frame on teachers. Whatever little scope there might be in this structure for creative teaching is further constrained by the poor quality of the questions asked. Typically, they are based on the textbook and can be answered correctly by memorisation. The practice of developing model answers further discourages originality and diversity. Hardly any of the scholars and teachers who were involved in the designing of the new syllabus and textbooks is invited to assist in the process of paper-setting or evaluation. The academic resources that most Boards in the country have access to are of poor quality and the recommendation of a committee chaired by Professor Amrik Singh in the early 1990s to strengthen the Boards has remained unheeded.

There is the added question as to how the role and responsibility of the Boards are to be defined. Should they serve mainly as examining bodies, or should they share curricular responsibilities with institutions like the NCERT and the SCERTs? These systemic questions have been waiting for answers for a long time.

(The author is the Director of the NCERT.)

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 9:18:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/The-long-road-to-examination-reforms/article16893613.ece

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