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Deconstructing the Current Board Exams

Academic achievement is one of the primary factors that influence an individual's recognition in modern society. Significant importance is associated with a student's scores in classes 10 and 12 examinations hence. This article attempts to understand these board examinations, particularly in the context of changes in the last couple of decades.

Board examinations entirely decided the course of further academic journey of an individual a few decades ago. The following points indicate the situations prevalent then:

  1. There were fewer schools.

  2. Many students would not get promoted from the lower classes and would not reach classes 10 or 12.

  3. There were limited opportunities for higher education and employment

  4. Learning resources were limited and the teacher was the primary resource provider.

  5. A very small percentage of students passed these examinations as the examinations were challenging. The scores would also differentiate an accomplished student from the non-accomplished ones.

  6. Society distinguished between a failed individual from one who failed in an examination - an individual who failed in examinations or scored low marks was not demeaned nor the top rankers celebrated for their achievements. Compared to today, a sense of equanimity to accept success or failure prevailed.

Over the years, the following changes have happened due to various factors -

  1. There are a large number of schools clamouring to attract students. Commercialization and commoditization of education have increased. The availability of quality teachers has fallen way short of the demand nor concerted efforts to bridge this gap have been made.

  2. As a policy, every child is promoted from one class to the next irrespective of involvement in learning/learning levels. Dilution of learning has been institutionalized.

  3. Higher education has become necessary for employment opportunities forcing more people to seek higher education. Higher education hasn't essentially translated to the acquisition of higher-order of skills. However, the competition to get into higher education has increased manifold.

  4. There is a glut in learning resources available to a student. Teacher, therefore, is no longer the primary source of learning for the child. Teacher, and hence the school, do not have the social reverence they enjoyed earlier.

  5. The idea of promoting more students to the subsequent classes and providing more marks has been put into practice in various ways. Pass-percentage, rather than learning outcomes, has become the indicator to showcase achievements of education institutions. Higher scores in examinations have become the norm. With schools becoming commercial opportunities, this trend has found momentum. Teachers under pressure to improve pass percentage and higher scores among their students have wilfully or unknowingly played along. This has further eroded the idea of learning being the centre of academic pursuit, only to make way for marks becoming the all-important index.

  6. The entire society - the institutions, teachers, parents and students, has fallen into the trap of being obsessed with marks. Ironically marks, by being given away liberally, has been devalued significantly and yet continues to be the index of associating importance to individuals. The society has lost its wisdom to distinguish between an individual's marks and an individual's value. It looks down upon individuals with low marks to the extent of humiliating them while celebrating those with high marks, irrespective of their true worth. Psychological problems in students, including suicidal tendencies, induced by the obsession with marks, has risen significantly. Even parents experiencing self-imposed social shame due to low marks of their children is a rising phenomenon.

Why do board examination scores not indicate the value accrued by an individual through his learning journey? Here are a few of the many points.

  1. From the education board/examiner, the message to the student should be - You learn the subjects to the best levels possible to acquire knowledge as well as capabilities/skills which help make gainful use of such knowledge. We will evaluate how much of these you have acquired. Such a message will direct the student to focus on learning or accruing value in oneself.

Instead, if the board/examiner's message to the student is This is the knowledge and skills we look for. Show that you have acquired these. Such a message will direct the student to focus on demonstrating such knowledge and capabilities. It clearly shifts the student's focus from learning to exam preparation. When learning takes a back seat, acquisition of knowledge and skills start seeming unnecessary and less important. Learning gets sacrificed in lieu of marks. Teaching also gets aligned to the requirements of the examination rather than the requirements of learning.

Over the years, equating learning with exam preparation has been belligerently promoted to an extent that very few students, teachers and schools are able to distinguish between the two. Even if they do, they are forced to helplessly accept the unpurposeful reality.

  1. The pressures to increase the pass percentage and student scores have further brought about certain practices in exams/evaluation. It is essential to note that the nature of evaluation dictates the nature of both teaching and learning.

    1. The questions in the examination have been predominantly restricted to Remember and Understand levels of Bloom's taxonomy. By restricting questions to these lower-order thinking skills, teaching and learning get restricted to lower levels as well. Thereby, the student is denied the opportunity to acquire the capabilities required to make the acquired knowledge useful.

Restricting evaluation to lower-order thinking enhances scores in exams, which is an intended outcome of such a scheme. The fact that it also promotes a malice called rote-learning is conveniently ignored even though it is abundantly evident.

Questions in the board exams thus don't challenge the student's knowledge and capabilities. Instead, they test the memory of the student and the ability to present the answers in the required format.

  1. The pattern of the board examination is made totally predictable. The number and the nature of questions from each chapter are predetermined, thereby creating an opportunity to term certain chapters as important and some as not. The importance associated is primarily from the viewpoint of examination and not necessarily the subject. The fact that questions asked in the exam are the same or minor variants of the questions at the end of each chapter reduce the uncertainty of the examination.

  2. The more recent method, which goes against academic principles, makes the question paper itself more predictable. The education boards have started creating question-bank, which is essentially a smaller set of questions available in the textbook, facilitating a student to learn the answers to only those questions. The questions in the examination paper are restricted to questions in the question bank.

This practice essentially creates an easier alternate path to achieving high scores in examinations while completely bypassing real conceptual learning. The number of books, termed as guides which are essentially a compilation of questions and answers, available for an examination is much larger in number compared to textbooks justifies the above statement. Most schools teaching a subset of the syllabus, which corresponds to questions in the question bank, is an expected outcome of this undesirable practice.

In essence, board examinations have been reduced to academic events that wean students away from real, meaningful and purposeful learning and get rewarded with very good scores - a recipe for promoting mediocrity.

This trend poses a far more fundamental danger to our society. It is creating generations of young citizens who are denied opportunities to enhance their intrinsic value by acquiring higher-order capabilities resulting from meaningful learning. The high scores in examinations instead create a false sense of capability and achievement. More than 80% of graduates of our country being found unemployable is testimony to such short-sighted, self-defeating and unchecked educational practices.

How do we solve this problem?

Changing such deeply entrenched systems and practices is an onerous task and is unlikely to happen in the immediate future. It calls for massive efforts and willingness on the part of multiple stakeholders in power. It is definitely outside the control of individual students and parents. However, students and parents becoming aware of the realities can help individual students avoid falling into the trap that leads to compromised learning or scoring low marks. Here are a few guidelines:

It is essential to differentiate between learning and exam preparation. Learning includes acquiring new knowledge and more importantly enhancing higher-order abilities to make gainful use of the knowledge in real life. Learning can happen even in the absence of exams. Thankfully with a variety of learning resources available today, some of them help a student acquire and strengthen these capabilities.

A good evaluation system needs to evaluate knowledge and capabilities acquired by an individual without impeding learning. Such mechanisms are helpful in the learning phase. However, when an exam doesn't evaluate learning and instead checks memory and ability to present answers in a required format, it is even more important not to associate learning with exam preparation.

Exam preparation should be a separate set of activities to be taken up after ensuring the completion of learning just prior to the exams. It is essential to have clarity that the board exams do not check the intelligence of the individual or the higher-order capabilities in a subject. In other words, the score in the board examination is neither a reflection of the intelligence or the capabilities of the student. Since it makes pragmatic sense to score good marks, the focus on exam preparation should be only to maximize marks.

To maximize marks in the exams, students have to

● Become familiar with the questions and the answers expected. Several resources are available for these.

● Practice answering all the questions from the textbook/question bank and get the appropriateness of answers and presentation verified by teachers.

● Answer 8-10 mock papers and exam papers from the previous years under exam conditions i.e. within the allotted time in a single sitting as done in the actual examination. Getting them verified by a teacher will help to minimize errors.

A good percentage of students who would have learnt the subject commit a common mistake. They skip these exam preparation steps. They continue to spend time before the exam trying to relearn the subject by reading textbooks and other resources. Lack of confidence or an incorrect assumption that exams evaluate learning is the cause of such behaviour. Even students who haven't learnt the subject properly score good marks by increasing their familiarity with the questions and their expected answers.

By delinking the activities of learning from board exam preparation, a student can enhance his value through purposeful learning, avoid falling into the trap of compromising learning and yet score good marks.

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