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Re-examining Schooling

Examinations must only be a small part of the assessment of learning.

The alleged leaking of the Class 10 mathematics and Class 12 economics question papers of the examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is disturbing. Incidents such as this not only have adverse consequences for lakhs of students and families, but reveal the extent of the corruption and misconduct that pervades the system. The CBSE is a body that certifies the knowledge acquired in schools by conducting national-level examinations for Classes 10 and 12 for all public and private schools affiliated to it. The board has been under the scanner over the past few weeks, having lapsed on one of its primary responsibilities, that is, ensuring the confidentiality of question papers till they reach students on the day of the examination.

These examinations are an impersonal, formal, mega event of disproportionate significance, with supposedly lifelong implications for entry into a desired stream of study or a college for higher education. It is another matter that, in reality, these marks do not say anything about one’s competence, ability, or aptitude. However, since performance is assessed, marked, and, most importantly, certified, this ritual has gained great importance in the public eye. Its momentousness is built up by students who are desperate for a bright future, parents who are anxious about their children and their own self-worth, teachers who are concerned about their accountability, and schools that are plagued by the need to display better results to attract more students. This frenzy around board examinations fuels an entire industry, and the fallout of this leak reveals the vicious nexus between schools, coaching centres, and the officials in charge at the CBSE.

The discourse around the issue so far has revolved around pinning responsibility, bringing the culprits to book, and creating stricter and tighter security systems around question papers. There have been demands for the resignation of top officials, including the CBSE director and the minister for human resource development. Various public interest litigations were filed, which the Supreme Court dismissed on the grounds that it was up to the CBSE to ascertain whether an examination needs to be reconducted or not. The board will need to bring relief to the affected students and re-establish the credibility of the examination system that is reeling from the paper leaks. However, this is also a good opportunity to step back and ask: Why are these examinations given so much importance if they do not in reality reflect one’s abilities to lead a decent life?

These examinations have been criticised over the years for their inability to create a culture of critical learning. Yet, even today, they promote the belief that memorising equals learning, that textbooks are the supreme source of knowledge, and that the results of these examinations have the power to somehow determine the futures of those appearing for them.

Several educationists and government committees have taken note of these deep flaws in our education system. It is important, therefore, to articulate an alternative vision to what we have today. We need to cultivate democratic spaces where reflective, sensitive, and enlightened young individuals are nurtured, and not regimented ones where children are trained chiefly to crack examinations. This will mean shedding the motivations and values currently attached to examinations, and redefining learning and the role of schools.

In order to do this, we need to examine the nature and purpose of learning and assessment as it is understood in schools today, and the roles of students and teachers in making sense of knowledge that is bound within formal curriculums and textbooks. Clearly, there is a vast difference between how knowledge is constructed, certified and thus legitimised in schools, and how it occurs in real-world situations where children constantly learn, unlearn, and grapple with challenges. Learning will have to be delinked from textbooks, thus allowing for children’s worlds/experiences to become a part of the classroom and for the agency of the teacher to facilitate this process.

Most importantly, the assessment system will have to be changed to aid learning and not inhibit it by making it distant, formidable, and alienating. Both the National Curricular Framework, 2005, which was a culmination of the Yashpal Committee’s report “Learning without Burden,” and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, proposed a comprehensive and continuous system of school-based assessment, an alternative that shows promise.

We continue to hold on to these examinations since we essentially live in an unequal society, where we seek a system that grades people on “merit” and has the appearance of being just and impartial. Instead of only trying to achieve unassailable security mechanisms around examination papers and chasing those subverting the system for money, we should make a conscious effort to promote fear-free learning and de-emphasise examinations in the assessment process. Our children should learn not just how to perform well in examinations or compete with one another, but to equip themselves to lead intelligent, meaningful, creative, and happy lives.

Updated On : 12th Apr, 2018


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