A moment to trust the teacher

The novel coronavirus crisis is the right time to create the energy for examination reform

Updated - May 28, 2020 01:19 am IST

Published - May 28, 2020 12:02 am IST

A public examination in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic is hard to imagine. That is what the government of Tamil Nadu has decided. It will conduct the Grade X board examination from June 15. The announcement carries the usual reassurance that all arrangements have been made. Indeed, special arrangements have been made. These include sparse seating to meet the medical requirement of physical distancing between candidates. No more than 10 will sit in a room. To enable this to happen, the number of exam centres has been radically increased from over 3,000 to 12,690.

A ritual

Nothing in the above paragraph can remind the reader that we are referring to 15-year-old children. In the discourse of public exams, children mutate into “candidates”; their names are replaced by roll numbers, schools become exam centres and teachers turn into invigilators. Every child knows how to behave in the examination hall. All examinations follow a strict ritual that has remained unchanged for over a century. A board exam has little to do with education or learning. The values it encourages children to imbibe are all negative. The prominent ones are fear of failing, sacrifice of joy and selfish competitiveness and submission to an opaque system. The urgency felt by the Tamil Nadu government to take the Class X examination in the middle of a health emergency can only be understood as the expression of a mindset rather than reasoning. The annual exam is seen as the culmination of the academic calendar. The set pattern it follows ensures that the exam questions will have no intellectual substance. They all require rote memory. If there is any real purpose these exams can serve, it is to select a few who can proceed further and eliminate the rest. This objective is attained by dividing students into “‘pass”–“fail” categories and into divisions based on marks..

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A middle path to consider

This standard argument does not fit the State of Tamil Nadu. The Class X result last year placed more than 95% of the total number of students who took the exam in the “pass” category. In several districts, the pass percentage was close to 99%. So, the exam does not fulfil the structural purpose that other States, especially the northern States, might have, such as reducing the numbers so that the limited infrastructure for the higher secondary or +2 stage proves sufficient. In Tamil Nadu, most children are likely to move on to Grade XI in the same school. This is the main ground for the recommendation made in the National Curriculum Framework (2005) for making the Grade X exam voluntary. This is a middle path that the Tamil Nadu government can consider this summer. Whenever schools reopen, children who want to take the board exam can do so. Others can carry on in the next grade.

All that the matriculate exam might achieve in Tamil Nadu is to sort students, on the basis of their marks, into different subject streams. This is hardly a worthwhile reason to risk the spread of the virus or to harass the young.

Also read | Teachers in Tamil Nadu reiterate need to meet students before class 10 board exams

It is a matter of belief that marks attained in the Grade X Board exam are a reasonable basis for judging who should study what. One might consider this as a valid argument if the exam papers and marking scheme of the Grade X exam had some substance. The questions are so uniformly inane, and quite a few so mechanistically silly, that a good or bad score shows little more than preparedness for facing the exam. That is all that the exam judges: Here is a question asked in an earlier exam: “Why is world peace an essential one?” There is a fixed answer to it and the teacher’s job is to ensure that the child gives just that answer rather than say that the question is poorly worded and is, in fact, a bit of nonsense.

The meaning of ‘refresh’

It is the job of teachers to ensure that every child is all set for the kind of questions that are asked. Teachers are rightly complaining that the notice period given for the June exam is much too short to “refresh” the children. By “refresh” they mean activate children’s rote memory into performance mode. Classes had to be suspended just when teachers had completed winding up the rote memory key. Three months later, the key has shed its tension. If you want the toy to dance out the programmed steps on the required date and time, give more time: that is what the teachers are saying. Considering their highly compromised professional and intellectual role, they are right. Had they enjoyed some real autonomy in teaching and assessment, they would have told the government not to worry about using exam scores to sort children into subject streams.

If you visit the website of Tamil Nadu’s Directorate of Examinations and study last year’s Class X results, you will come across this interesting statement. “The highest pass percentage was recorded in Tirupur district at 98.53 percent, followed by Ramanathapuram with 98.48 percent and Namakkal with 98.45 percent”. When I read this statement, I wondered wherein lay its meaning or significance. The pass percentage of the three districts was almost identical. Moreover, it was so high that the small difference cannot be suspected to carry or convey a message that exam results often carry. No one can convincingly argue that the children and teachers of Namakkal are not as good as Ramanathapuram because the pass percentage of the latter is .03% more. The obvious fact is that all three districts have done well.

Also read | Stalin criticises Tamil Nadu government decision to hold class 10 exams

So, what exactly is the board asking us to notice by highlighting the micro difference in their pass percentages? A similar point can be made about the tag line claiming that “girls outshine boys” just because the girls’ pass percentage is slightly higher.

Crisis and change

Some disasters teach lessons; the experience of going through a crisis can create the desire for reform. But it is hard to imagine that the novel coronavirus crisis will create energy for examination reform. A system so well-established as the board exam does not easily yield to pressure for improvement. The board system has successfully resisted the criticism and recommendations articulated by countless committees and individuals. Even a minor improvement in the exam system will demand an effort sustained over several years during which a regime may change and the officer-in-charge may get shifted or retire. If we do not wish to feel cynical, a good starting point for change is to think of an alternative name for the certificate a child gets after passing the Class X Board exam: “school leaving certificate”. Once upon a time, the matriculate examination carried a lot of weight and only a handful proceeded towards further education. Today, the overwhelming majority of children do not want to leave the school after Class X. Tamil Nadu is among very few States left where the term ‘school leaving certificate’ is used. Ironically, these are the States with the highest rate of transition from Class X to XI. Let us hope a virulent virus will impel these States to drop an obsolete title. The next step will be to start trusting the teacher and nurture the growth of a school-based system of evaluation.

Krishna Kumar is a former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)

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