Coronavirus | Opeds and editorials

Should Board exams be conducted in one go this year?

With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the academic year 2020-21, for the first time, students of classes X and XII are set to face Board examinations based on knowledge gained almost entirely from virtual teaching. What are the challenges in conducting the examinations now? Chandra Bhushan Sharma (Professor, School of Education, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi) and K. Devarajan (former Director of Government Examinations, Tamil Nadu) share their views in a discussion moderated by D. Suresh Kumar. Edited excerpts:

An academic year has almost gone by with students having limited classroom learning. Should the school Board examinations be held now in the paper-and-pen mode?

Chandra Bhushan Sharma: I think this is the right time to revert to the normal process of pen-and-paper tests. We had a new normal and very successfully experimented with online teaching-learning as well as assessment and evaluation. It is time we revert to the default [method]. The population under [the age of] 18 is the least affected by COVID-19. They can fight it. But they cannot fight a situation where they are not allowed to conduct teaching-learning. We are not realising that while we have about one crore people suffering from COVID-19, in India alone, 40 crore children in schools and colleges are not allowed to meet or live their normal lives. This is worse than a pandemic. The teaching-learning [process] should also go back to normal. We had conducted NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) successfully. I believe it is a good decision to go back and conduct paper-pencil tests at least for Board exams. The rest can be left to schools.

 

K. Devarajan: I agree that Board examinations cannot be done away with, but the issue is when to conduct them. Most students were not able to connect for online classes. Besides, [most] teachers were not trained and oriented towards the online teaching-learning process. I know that even some private schools in Tamil Nadu were struggling to make teachers teach through the online mode.

So, firstly, we can start the classes and then decide on conducting examinations. Let me illustrate this. Three persons were engaged for a task. The first person had to dig a hole, the second had to drop a seed and the third had to fill the soil. One day, the second person was on leave, but the third person began filling the soil. When asked, he responded that “this is our job”. Similarly, there is a Board and they have to conduct an examination, but they don’t bother whether classes were conducted or not. In my view, first, classes should be conducted for three months. Then, examinations could be conducted for those portions, and later, we can have another examination for the remaining syllabi.

Given that access to quality online education was not uniform across the country due to the urban-rural digital divide, would it be fair to test all class X and XII students through a common Board examination at the State/national level?

Chandra Bhushan Sharma: See, I agree that it is not a level playing field. Some students are privileged to have access to modern gadgets and the best teachers. But don’t forget that the more we delay Board exams, the more we are depriving these students of the chance of getting into an institution of higher learning, as well as their teaching-learning time. I quite agree that we are not doing great justice to everyone, but we are left with no other option. Conducting exams will provide a level playing field in the sense that all the children would be writing the same exam.

Comment | E-learning in India, a case of bad education

The Central and State governments took efforts to provide access to content through Swayam Prabha, in which 33 television channels were put into use and in all Indian languages through the Diksha portal. Even radios were used extensively in States like Bihar and Jharkhand. So, it is not that if you did not have access to mobile phones or fast Internet, you were deprived. Whatever could be done during the pandemic has been done. Now, let’s get back and conduct the exams. We have no time left.

K. Devarajan: Even Tamil Nadu started an educational [TV] channel. But the problem is that not all villages have uninterrupted power connections. Also, some families have a single TV set only, and some parents may not allow children to watch educational programmes as they want to watch other shows. Even if students watch [TV], it [the content] is very difficult to understand. While the governments took great efforts [to launch the channels], the question is, are they effective? We have to first check if students understand the classes, and then conduct the examinations. Otherwise, only privileged students from urban centres will get into higher education institutions. Even now, many students fail in the first year of engineering courses. My point is that you should at least make them study well in schools, cover the full syllabus, and then allow them to join higher education [institutions]. The academic year can be postponed till January. You will lose only six months. Who decided that the academic year should start only in June?

Also read | COVID-19 is additional layer to ‘gender equality in education’ challenge: UNESCO report

Chandra Bhushan Sharma: See, I think Mr. Devarajan and I are on the same page, except that he is insisting that we first conduct classes for three months and then hold the exams. As far as the issue of electricity is concerned, I have been working on technology-augmented education, and for the last 30 years, we have been trying to answer this question. There will always be a difference or a gap between the haves and the have-nots, but we have to manage with that. What I believe is that we should not postpone exams any further. The sooner we bring back the students to normal schools, colleges and classrooms, the better it is. I believe that [the concept of] Board exams is sacrosanct in our country. We want to relax it. Through the National Education Policy 2020, we have relaxed a number of things, and you will witness that in the coming days.

The NCERT did a tremendous job in restructuring the curriculum during a pandemic ... I don’t think our students, who have undergone the revised online curriculum, will be in any way less than a normal batch, except that they have not done the repeat exercises. The U.K. invited students from across the globe, put them in quarantine at their [own] cost and [only] then let them start classes. We can provide such facilities as well and start our processes.

Also read | NSO report shows stark digital divide affects education

Could governments at least make Class X Board examinations optional, as these students have never given a Board exam? The CBSE did this a few years ago…

K. Devarajan: The problem is that internal examinations have not been conducted for Class X students [in most schools]. Actually, they should have at least conducted tests at home and asked the students to send them by post, corrected it and given feedback. In any case, conducting Class X Board examination is not difficult. You can’t rely on internal marks as last time, many private schools [reportedly] fabricated scores, whereas government-school teachers gave real marks. Instead, staggered uniform exams could be conducted.

Also read | Back to school: doing things differently in a pandemic

Is there a need to adopt a separate examination policy this year for students with special needs and those hailing from economically backward regions with limited access to online education?

Chandra Bhushan Sharma: You have raised a very important issue. We are so used to looking at school education from a bureaucratic perspective. We do not trust the teachers, we make a policy that is top-heavy, and then ask teachers to follow [it]. Look, we have schools in Arunachal Pradesh, we have schools in remote areas that do not have even a single case of COVID-19. Why did we stop those schools from going ahead with the normal teaching-learning process, [in places] where we had the problem of accessibility of online technologies? This is because we decide on policies from a centralised perspective, either [from that of] Delhi or Chennai, or Patna or Jaipur. We have forgotten that the person at ground zero — the principal of the school, the teacher of the classroom, knows the situation better. I have been talking to teachers from various parts of the country and they have said, “There is not a single [COVID-19] case, I don’t know why my school is closed, and we don’t have access to technology.”

Also read | How the pandemic has changed some elements of teaching, learning permanently

When you make a policy which is top-heavy, which is bureaucratic, which is centralised, you have these problems for a country like India. There is a need to establish a School Education Commission that will look at things from the perspective of schools. This is an issue beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and the Board exams of 2021.

With your experience as an administrator of school education and in conducting Board examinations, what would be your suggestions to make these exams less stressful for students?

K. Devarajan: The CBSE [could have] conducted a meeting of all [school] Board chairpersons and decided on how to make this examination stress-free through syllabus reduction. But they have not done that. The CBSE is a leading Board. They should have conducted a meeting of other Boards much before announcing the schedule because if even a single Board does not conduct exams and declare results, it would affect admissions to higher education courses. If five or six States do not conduct exams and declare the results, how will you conduct NEET or admissions to the IITs? Secondly, if all Boards decide on staggered syllabus-based exams, students won’t feel the same stress as in writing examinations for the entire portions.

Also, some students may miss the examinations due to personal reasons. So, if an average of two or three examinations is taken, their future will not be affected. There is no point in condensing textbooks. For instance, there is a chapter on electricity with five or six pages, how can you reduce the content to one page? The children will not be able to understand the concept. As an author of textbooks, I would say this will be very difficult.

Comment | A moment to trust the teacher

 

As an exception, should a scheme of instant supplementary examinations be evolved to give students who fail a second chance this year?

Chandra Bhushan Sharma: I completely agree. See, we have made our exams very rigid and that is why we have seen so many [student] suicides. I have been the chairman of the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), where we did it [reforms]. In the NIOS, students can choose the date of the exam. I believe we must do this [for all Boards]. We must hold multiple exams instead of assessing students on the basis of one exam. Why is this not happening? My take on it is that we take bureaucratic decisions about education. Those who take decisions on education have never ... taught [children]. They have no idea what a child is. So, they decide the way they have been trained — like an officer. School education must be managed by those who have been to a class and know students and their mentality.

As for the assessment of students, guidelines should be given to teachers ... Once you tell them “your assessment is sacrosanct, please be honest”, they will do a good job. We have stopped trusting our teachers. And that is why we are in a situation where we have to decide on so many things. Let the classroom teacher be in control of the class and the principal of the school control the school.

K. Devarajan is former Director of Government Examinations, Tamil Nadu; Chandra Bhushan Sharma is Professor, School of Education, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 1:35:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/should-board-exams-be-conducted-in-one-go-this-year/article33753725.ece

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