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Beyond the pass-fail binary

Students writing the CBSE Board examination at a school in Chennai. Photo: R. Ragu

Students writing the CBSE Board examination at a school in Chennai. Photo: R. Ragu   | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

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A contradiction between an outmoded authoritarian system and a more enlightened idea of education is reflected in the clamour for the removal of the no-detention policy.

The national press is abuzz with reports on whether to re-introduce the old pass-fail system or continue with the current automatic promotion (referred to as “no-detention policy [NDP]”) to the next class, brought in as part of the implementation of the Right To Education Act (RTE, 2009). The central government is treading cautiously “[i]rrespective of the unanimous outcry for revocation” of the NDP and has asked for written responses from all State governments, according to news reports. Educationists, however, say, “Just by failing children, you do not make them good learners”. The teachers often complain about ‘no detention’ and ‘no punishment’, seeing the two punitive measures as the most effective tools of control over children — and control, as we all know, is seen as a necessary condition for making children learn.

Both claims, it seems, have some truth in them but miss the real issue by a wide margin. Exams have a tendency to become the only motivation for learning. All educated Indians are thoroughly conditioned to believe that “no exams, no learning”. This belief is easily transferred to children in a system that has almost no idea of the joy of learning in itself.

While educationists are right that failing children does not make them good learners, they are wrong to think that education can be completed just by automatic promotion to the next class. The idea that children drop out because of failure is actually wrong; they do because of non-learning and failure is just the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back.

In such a situation the only thing the no-detention policy can ensure is the pretence of completing elementary education without any real learning. However, if we want to understand the educational worth of no-detention, we have to take into account three important ideas promoted by the RTE simultaneously. They are: admission in age appropriate class (AAAC), continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE), and no-detention policy (NDP).

All three ideas come from what could be broadly called the progressive education movement in the West that entered India under the name of “child-centred education”. It talks of classroom process being guided by the child’s interests and learning through activities. Modestly, it can start from where the child is and help her actively engage in making meaning through constructing concepts and forming relationships between them. The goal is to arrive at the knowledge generally accepted today.

These ideas demand that children work together and progress in rational enquiry in a free atmosphere. It is assumed that interaction and collaboration with children of similar age will help them in this progressive meaning making. Therefore, the need for the AAAC. Similarly, children progress with varied speeds and not necessarily through the same conceptual routes; therefore, one periodic examination on fixed questions for all becomes inappropriate and leaves much of the child’s progress in scholastic as well as moral and emotional development un-assessed. Hence, the need for the CCE. Since children progress as per their own speed, which is necessary for conceptual clarity, there is no point in pass-fail in classes. This will only artificially bunch children together. Therefore, the need for the NDP.

The three ideas are closely connected through assumptions regarding knowledge, human learning and the child’s nature. They are complementary to each other and can only work in any education system if taken together seriously.

Curves vs. ladders

If we accept the assumptions underlying AAAC, CCE and NDP, then the organisation of the curriculum and the school structure will need fundamental changes. The curriculum and syllabi will have to assume a “learning continuum” rather than a “learning ladder”. A continuum imagines a curve of learning, an individual path taken by each child, which does not necessarily have any time-bound milestones. The knowledge, skills and values in the curriculum and syllabus may be organised sequentially, but no year-wise rigid packaging can be admitted.

In the learning ladder paradigm, on the other hand, the curriculum and syllabus are neatly organised in yearly packages, which we call grades or classes, to be learnt in one year. Exams may come during the year, but results are aggregated at the end and the decision on whether sufficient learning has happened is expressed in the form of a pass or fail. In case of failure, the whole chunk has to be learnt again; in case of a pass, no further opportunity to strengthen learning in the already covered areas is needed.

Organising curriculum in the form of learning continuum will immediately contradict the grade-wise structure of the school. Since learning is supposed to be continuous, no rigid, year-wise division is made. Putting children into different grades and the pass-fail kind of examination system becomes redundant and an impediment to teaching-learning. The only form of assessment that can serve the purpose then is the CCE.

Our education system is profoundly authoritarian. The idea of progressive creation of knowledge by the child directly contradicts the idea of knowledge as finished product, enshrined in the textbook. The grade-wise organisation of curriculum goes very well with this idea of knowledge. The class-wise structure of the school is an administrator’s delight as it can be used for simple delineation of tasks for teachers and students. And the pass-fail examination system is a natural, logical outcome of these ideas of knowledge, learning, curriculum and school.



The contradiction between an outmoded authoritarian system and a more enlightened idea of education is being played out in the form of introduction and then the clamour for removal of CCE and NDP. CCE and NDP simply cannot be meaningfully implemented unless we challenge and dismantle the authoritarian education system.

All the three ideas of CCE, NDP and AAAC are theoretically sound, practically proven, and much better for quality education. That is what makes the current antagonism to NDP misguided — the fault lies in the authoritarian structure of the school, not in the NDP.

Expecting education administrators to understand the CCE and NDP properly would be a pipe dream. But what of the educationists who advise on policies like RTE? Do they lack the courage to suggest the dismantling of the authoritarian structure of schools? At present we are discussing a new education policy for the nation. A more enlightened vision of education and schools should have been at the centre of this discussion. One is dismayed to note that those guiding the policy debates seem to have no awareness of this dire need of our education system. And therefore, we will continue barking up the wrong tree.

(Rohit Dhankar is professor and director, academic development at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and founder member, Digantar, Jaipur.)

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Printable version | Nov 14, 2019 12:52:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/right-to-education-act-beyond-the-passfail-binary/article7608382.ece

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