Who is Failing: Students or the Education System?

The article probes deeper into the Uttar Pradesh state board examinations of 2019 and argues that there are deep-rooted systemic flaws, relating to pedagogical planning and execution, which have potentially contributed to the mass dropouts and failures that came about as a result of the examinations.

The Board of High School and Intermediate Education, Uttar Pradesh (UP) declared the board examination results for class 10 and 12 on 27 April 2019. Following the results, it was reported that a total of 10.48 lakh students failed in both classes in the state.[1] Another 6.52 lakh students either did not appear or only partially appeared for the board examinations (UP Board Exam 2019). The state government has claimed that it is the measures taken by the government to curb cheating and conduct fair and transparent examinations, that have led to the huge number of dropouts and failure among students. This claim has been echoed by the media. However, this linkage seems, at best, superficial. We argue that there are deep-rooted systemic flaws, relating to pedagogical planning and execution, which have potentially contributed to the mass dropouts and failures. Hence, instead of focusing on anti-cheating measures as the only reason for failure, this article endeavours to probe deeper.

Mass cheating in state board examinations is a common problem across India. In the context of Bihar, Tewary (2015) illustrates how, for girls in the state, the minimum requirement of a matriculation certificate has become an important requirement for marriage. Thus, when a girl appears for matriculation or higher secondary examination, family members, villagers, and even teachers and officials sympathise with them and do not oppose mass cheating. 

Dhankar (2015) explains that education, in general, has been reduced to the level of teaching for testing. He further elaborates,

Education systems across the world are used to judge the worth of individuals. They issue certificates and mark-sheets and these documents are taken by employers and institutions of further education as measure of an individual’s capabilities. Since societies reward individuals on the basis of their capabilities (if we ignore nepotism and money power), these certificates become the measure of the individual. The disproportionate importance accorded to such certification pushes people—students, parents and teachers—to use all means possible to get that good certificate. Therefore, using unfair methods in an examination, for example, is often the easiest way to get that ideal mark-sheet. 

In the context of UP, particularly, mass cheating in the state board examinations has been a persistent problem for many years.[2] Before going to the root of the problem, it is essential to briefly introduce the anti-cheating measures taken by the government. These include installation of closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras and voice recorders at examination centres to keep an eye on examiners and examinees, and involvement of the special task force (STF) of the UP Police to help conduct free and fair exams. Additionally, the allotment of centres has now been computerised. These centres were further verified by a team headed by the district magistrate (Times of India 2017). It was also found that authorities were asked to check and, subsequently, ban the entry of outsiders within a periphery of 200 metres from exam centres so as to prevent cheating during the examination. Along with this, strict instructions were given by the board to keep certain schools under surveillance in an effort to keep a tab on organised cheating. In a few centres, mobile phones of the examination centres coordinators and other officials on duty in the flying squad were also tracked. A total of 8,354 examination centres were set up in all the 75 districts of UP. While a significant number of 1,314 centres were identified as sensitive, 448 centres were marked as highly sensitive (Johari 2019). 

However, an overemphasis on these measures adopted by the UP board to control cheating tends to shift the onus of blame elsewhere and does not fully acknowledge the root cause of cheating and failure. 

Systemic Inadequacies 

Reasons which are directly or indirectly responsible for mass failures can be grouped into two categories, namely the systemic inadequacies ailing the education system in UP and the recently instituted policy changes that could have adversely affected the performance of students in examinations. According to the 201617 data from Unified District Information System for Education (U-DISE),[3] the pupil-to-teacher ratio (PTR) is high across UP, with backward districts or poor-performing districts painting an even more dire picture. According to the above data set, at the higher secondary level, the average PTR is 88.0, which is much higher than the national average of 32.[4] This figure represents public and private schools, in both urban and rural areas.

From 2017 to 2019, the government did not fill any major vacancy in the schools. Hence, the situation is now more grave than that inferred from the 2017 data. This is made worse by the fact that with the opening of new schools and the upgradation of upper primary schools to high schools (Uchchikrit Rajkiya High School or Balika High School), the number of schools across the state is continuously expanding. The condition is far more serious in districts that obtained zero and/or poor results. For instance, Ghazipur district has a PTR of 139, which is much more than the state average of 88. There are districts like Hamirpur and Mahrajganj that have a PTR of 498 and 426, respectively. This effectively means that there is only one teacher to look after more than 400 students (U-DISE 201617).

Additionally, there is a skewed distribution of teachers across schools. On the one hand, urban centres such as Lucknow, Varanasi, Allahabad, and Ghaziabad, have more teachers per school as compared to rural areas and smaller towns.[5] On the other, in the remote interiors, there are more teachers than there are schools within the proximity of the district headquarters and schools. This is especially ironic given that the number of students in rural government schools is higher than in urban government schools.

In several schools, subject teachers are not available to teach specific subjects. This situation is more or less the same across schools, whether they are government and rural schools or medium and low-fee private schools. 

In August 2017, the government announced that retired teachers having the required qualifications to teach at the primary and secondary level, would be appointed on a contractual basis and they would be kept in service till the next round of recruitment. The success of such appointments cannot be realised at the moment, but it surely contradicts the government’s own policy of compulsory retirement of teachers aged 50 years or more who are not performing well (Sethi 2018). 

According to U-DISE 201617 data,[6] in UP, only an average of 64.8% schools (higher secondary level) have furniture (desks/tables) that is available for use by each student. For the secondary level, this figure is 68.3%. 

In the case of library availability, only 76.2% schools in the state have one. For districts with poor performing schools, the numbers are lower. For example, in Ghazipur, only 52.3% schools have libraries. Across the state, nearly 20% schools still do not have an electricity connection. Here also, urban schools have better facilities as compared to their rural counterparts, which either completely lack an electricity connection or face constant power cuts (U-DISE 20162017). Schools with poor results in backward districts also happen to be lagging behind in electrification. 

Further, at a time when the Digital India initiative is being actively pursued, around 82.2% schools in the state still do not have computers with internet connectivity (U-DISE 201617). There is no confirmed data to show if this situation has improved drastically, but information from participants of schools suggests that this has not changed much. In districts with poor results, like Ghazipur, only 5.7% schools had computers with internet connections.

Short-sighted Policy Changes Instituted in Recent Years

Within this section, we look at how factors such as mismatch between new academic session and local factors, students' involvement in agricultural work, and adverse weather could affect the UP education system. 

In 2015, the UP board authority announced a change in the time of the academic session to match the schedule of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) examinations. The academic session is now from April to March, whereas earlier it was from July to May. This change, however, is out of tune with local factors such as prevailing weather conditions, trends in agricultural work, and involvement of teachers in other academic activities like evaluation of board examination answer sheets. This may have ultimately contributed towards the poor performance of students in the board examination.

According to the new schedule, the academic session commences in April, which is also the time for harvesting wheat. A large number of students involved in these agricultural activities hardly attend school during that time. The Annual State of Education Report (ASER) 2017 disclosed that about 42% youth in the age group 1418 are involved in some kind of work. Of this, 79% youth from rural areas work in agriculture and, at the time of harvesting, are expected to help their family members on the farm (NDTV 2018). Due to their absence from schools in April and May, the time available for teaching is reduced by nearly two months. Though the session officially starts from April, on the ground it starts from July.

Adding to these factors, the weather is also quite harsh in April and May due to the phenomenon of Loo, that is, the dry and hot summer winds that also cause sunstrokes. As can be expected, this makes teaching and learning a difficult task. Sunstrokes or illnesses sustained as a result of the weather are exacerbated by the lack of resources in schools to deal with such situations. Extremely hot weather conditions sometimes also force temporary closure of schools or reduction in school hours. This year in April, the temperature rose to 44° C, compelling officials to announce a reduction in the working hours of schools.

The involvement of most of the teachers in the correction of answer sheets during board exams seriously affects the already imbalanced PTR in schools at the time of commencement. Some reports show that in 201819, around 1.25 lakh teachers were involved in evaluating answer sheets of high school examinations and intermediate examinations (Nandini 2019). Simultaneously, there is the issue of vacant posts in secondary schools in the state. Around 50% of total positions in secondary schools (classes 9 and 10) are vacant in UP (Goswami 2017). The commencement of the new session from April does not carry any reasonable input because the period is doubly impacted by unfilled teaching posts as well as an absence of existing teachers due to their involvement in board examinations.

The state government introduced National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks in place of state boardrecognised books from the 2018–19 academic year across classes 10 to 12 (India Today 2017). This decision taken by the government, though encouraging, has faced roadblocks in terms of successful implementation on the ground. An abrupt introduction without proper planning has affected the performance of students negatively in board examinations. Students from the UP board have become accustomed to studying from somewhat information-oriented books, while NCERT books are written with a constructive and practice-oriented approach and emphasise self-learning. Such a textbook requires a different attitude for learning, and therefore needs to be accompanied by a proper orientation (for students as well as teachers). It has been, therefore, challenging for students to study from this new set of books in an already under-resourced educational environment. Hence, the new syllabus and textbooks could also be one of the reasons for mass failure.  

The state government has put undue emphasis on conducting board examinations in the shortest time frame and in declaring the result as early as possible. This year, the high school examination was completed within 14 days and the intermediate examination got over in 16 working days. Though the government declared this process to have been a great success, it needs to be analysed from the students’ perspective. It raises questions as to whether exams are conducted for assessing the learning level of students or for setting records and for media publicity. As teaching, learning and assessment is more information-oriented and promotes memorisation, the time provided for revision in between each examination becomes crucial. The efforts to set records and compete with other boards whose realities are different may have adversely affected the performance of students in the board examination.

Alongside the above policy changes, there were other decisions taken by the government that demand serious consideration. The government has hiked the re-evaluation fee to ₹500, which is five times higher than the earlier fee. This is even higher than that of the CBSE board (300) (Kumar 2019). Why this hike is needed is a question that is still unanswered. This has a direct effect on students who belong to economically weak backgrounds and are not satisfied with the assessment.

Conclusion

The above-reported findings project a rather dismal teachinglearning environment in UP. However, it may be argued that the picture portrayed above is not peculiar to UP alone. 

Viewing cheating as an individual problem, one related to poor ethics on the students’ part, would be rather simplistic. This should be seen as reflective of a larger malaise that has an impact on students’ educational worlds. While it is possible that there are a few students who may use unfair practices irrespective of the quality of education received, to say that the majority of children are ethically bankrupt may not be right. If the problem lies outside of students—for example, in poor infrastructure, high PTR, inappropriate curricular and pedagogical resources, and inadequate preparation time— then the measures to curb cheating alone will not solve the problem.

 

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