Amid pandemic-induced cancellation of board exams, lack of standardised evaluation poses challenges for students
The aim of education is not a certificate, or marks in an exam. Education is an end in itself, not a means to an end.
Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.
Among life events, the Class 10 board exams are usually the first major milestone on the road to a career for those who attend school. The Class 12 board exams, even more significant than the previous, are next. This year, both of these have been cancelled by major boards of school education around the country. The decision has been forced by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It is not clear to me as a neutral observer, someone with no axe to grind – I am not a student, parent, or teacher – that this was the best decision under the circumstances. Yes, I know there’s still a pandemic on, but please hear me out.
There are broadly two things to consider while deciding on the matter of board exams – the pandemic risk, and the implications of not holding the exams. The evidence, both from daily coronavirus statistics and from news reports, indicates that the devastating COVID-19 second wave is mercifully on the wane across the country. It is still far from over, but the trend shows a steady decline in numbers of cases as well as deaths. Hopefully in a month or two things will have returned to a semblance of normalcy, even if temporarily. Considering that the age group of 16-18 years, which is the cohort that would be appearing for these exams, is not generally susceptible to the virus, and that vaccines are available so the teachers and support staff can be fully vaccinated, it could be argued that the exams could have been scheduled for later this year. There are rumours of a third wave that may hit younger people but at the moment this is pure speculation. No one can say when and where there may be a third wave or who might be hit by it, but we’ve seen the whole country go into total lockdown at four hours’ notice. Cancellation, if necessary, could be done at a later date too.
The country will gradually start easing lockdown norms in weeks to come; indeed, this process has already begun in some states. Shops, markets, and offices will open, and people of age groups that are at higher risk will take crowded local trains, buses and metros to work. However, in the name of safety, the school exams won’t be held even though social distancing is far easier to maintain in a classroom during an exam than in a train station at rush hour.
In the name of abundant caution, politicians and bureaucrats have chosen the option that is safest not for the students, but for themselves. For the students, the immediate implication of the cancellation of exams beyond the joyful one of passing exams without effort is that they will now have to undergo evaluation on the basis of criteria which are yet to be drawn up. This may mean some form of internal evaluation based on past performance. An automatic corollary to this is that there will be no standardisation. Every school and every teacher will now be assigning marks that would otherwise have been decided by the board exam. Students are going to end up with marks and marksheets that are way more susceptible than the board exams to various kinds of inequities and manipulations.
Rich kids who study in fancy schools and can afford laptops for themselves, along with good data internet connections, will have some basis for internal evaluation. What percentage of students in this country fall into that fortunate and privileged category? A microscopic one – and of this lot, some are in the fancy International Baccalaureate programs which are having online exams. The kids from small town and rural India may, however, have recourse to other options to level the playing field. For example, some among them may be able to join tuition classes conducted by their own teachers who can then give them entirely undeserved marks. Massive and organised cheating occurs even when board exams are conducted. One can only imagine the situation when this process is basically liberalised, so that every crooked teacher and headmaster in the country can now fix Class 10 and Class 12 board exam marks.
The knock-on effect of this will carry on to college admissions. It is quite likely that there will be many unworthy candidates who end up securing unreal marks. The fairness of college admission processes where board exam marks is a criterion will therefore be in doubt. Aspirants for engineering and medical seats have some hope of a fair and standardised admissions process. A decision on the Joint Entrance Exams (JEE) for admission to premier engineering colleges and National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for entrance to medical colleges is pending, but it is expected that both of these will be held. Thus, prospective engineering and medical students, after escaping board exams thanks to COVID, will still have to take exams attended by lakhs of candidates.
The COVID pandemic has introduced an element of randomness into our lives. The cancellation of board exams without thinking through future implications means the country’s education system as a whole is basically going to make stuff up as it goes along for at least the next year, or longer. The pandemic is not expected to end anytime soon, unfortunately. In fact, experts are now warning that the virus is here to stay. It has spread too far and wide, and into a dozen species other than humans, including cats. For how many years are the boards going to cancel their exams?
The aftereffects of this decision, currently unpredictable, will live on in the lives of the students affected by it. Hopefully it will not adversely impact their future careers. There are pros and cons to getting certified without taking an exam. On the positive side, from the perspective of academically weak students, there is the relief of getting a certificate without having to study for it. On the negative side, the marks in an unknown and unknowable number of cases will not be any reflection of academic achievement and cannot be used as a basis for fairly comparing students to one another. Every recruiter in the world is going to be aware of this. The jokes and memes about the batch of 2021 have already begun.
None of this is likely to affect anyone’s chances of material success in life. Would that imply the irrelevance of exams and of education in general? Of course not. The aim of education is not a certificate, or marks in an exam. Education is an end in itself, not a means to an end.
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