Students who appeared for the Class 12 examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education this year are expected to score less than their counterparts from previous batches. That is because the Board, India’s only public central board with over 18,500 affiliated schools across states, has decided to do away with “marks moderation” – the practice of awarding extra or grace marks to students for various reasons, such as errors in the question paper or difficult questions.

The decision was taken at a meeting of the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s education secretary with representatives from central and state boards, and announced last week. Initially, 32 boards were reported to have agreed to drop the policy but later, Union Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar said it had been left to the states to decide for themselves.

The move to scrap moderation and the lack of clarity on the response of the state boards have left authorities of schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education deeply concerned. Even those in favour of doing away with the moderation policy say that all boards should be part of the decision or else CBSE students will suffer. This year, over 10.9 lakh students had registered for the Class 12 CBSE exams.

Also, many teachers and principals feel that simply doing away with the practice of granting extra marks is not the answer, because that is not the only way to bump up grades. The lack of monitoring and standardisation in marking papers that led to moderation being introduced in the first place has still not been addressed.

And compounding the problem, colleges and universities use board exam results to set their cut-offs – the minimum marks a candidate must score to get admission to an undergraduate programme. Teachers fear that in the absence of moderation but with all the other problems still around, there is nothing to safeguard the interests of students in a public exam.

Why moderation existed

“We must first understand why the policy existed for so many years,” said Ashok Pandey, chairman of the National Progressive Schools Conference, which has 160 private senior secondary schools under its umbrella. “It was introduced in an effort to neutralise the effect of errors in setting of question papers and the marking of answer scripts, the vast differences in the class experience and pedagogy, in a way that did not put a disadvantaged child to further disadvantage.”

He pointed to the controversy over the mathematics papers set by the central board in 2015 and 2016, which were so difficult that school associations complained against them and the matter ended up being discussed in Parliament. In 2015, a high proportion of application-based questions resulted in large sections of students leaving their exam halls in tears after failing to complete the lengthy test. However, none of that showed up in the results. The following year, there was a similar uproar over the level of difficulty of the question papers, this time accompanied by a downward slide in marks.

“No one can guarantee this will not happen again in the future,” said Pandey. “Even this year, in mathematics, a piece of information crucial for solving a problem was missing from the question paper. What happens to students in these situations? The reasons for the existence of moderation have not gone away.”

Neither have the gaps in curriculum and standards of evaluation across boards.

Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of the Pusa Road branch of Springdales School in Delhi, is in favour of doing away with the moderation policy but says boards must be “very careful” in order to help children. “Assessment and paper-setting affect the lives of so many children,” she said. “Students should get the marks they deserve. Marks moderation was leading to unrealistic scores, intense competition and disappointment even among children who scored in the 90s. But for this, balanced papers must be set and properly reviewed, correction standardised and the whole process monitored.”

Pandey added, “There are guidelines for all of this but they are seldom followed.”

The teachers also pointed out that with education being in the concurrent list (governed by both the Centre and state), state education departments and their boards are not obliged to follow the Central Board of Secondary Education. As a result, if they choose to retain the moderation policy, CBSE students may find themselves at a disadvantage during admissions, fears Wattal. “It is a worthwhile reform if it is implemented nationally and across boards,” she said.

Pandey said in agreement, “The ministry should not have rushed with this and seen it in the larger context.”

Monitoring is difficult

Teachers also question how far “lenient marking” can be monitored and curbed. The principal of a South Delhi school who attended an orientation programme on correcting a social science paper recalled that during a discussion on the marking scheme – marks to be awarded for each piece of information covered in the answer – examiners were instructed to give away marks for “any other point” as well. “Clearly, you can still write anything and it is up to the examiner to award or withhold marks,” she said on condition of anonymity.

The principal heads a correction centre – where teachers of a particular subject gather to correct answer scripts – and looks at a number of papers every day to check the standard of evaluation. She admits it is impossible to do more than that. “At the micro-level, it is very difficult to check or restrict lenient marking,” she said. “You cannot really do much and that is why we give feedback on the paper and constantly request them [the CBSE] to design papers that are balanced.”

According to Wattal, though, monitoring has become easier with papers being uploaded online – but the practice has not been adopted across the board.

Many blame the moderation policy for soaring cut-offs, sometimes even touching 100%, at Delhi University. Credit: IANS

Cut-offs and admissions

A big part of the problem is that board exams are seen not just as the culmination of school education but as a means to regulate admission to institutes of higher education. According to Jyoti Arora, member of the CBSE’s governing body and principal of Mount Abu School in Delhi, moderation “unnecessarily raise[d] cut-off percentages” and scrapping it is the right move.

Irrational cut-off marks have been a concern for a while now, especially in Delhi University’s colleges. In 2011, the Shri Ram College of Commerce set 100% as the minimum score – essentially the only score – for its honours course in commerce. It was the first instance of cut-offs touching 100%, but it would be repeated for other subjects and in other colleges later.

The board exam score is the only factor for admission in many public universities.

No one has scored a 100% in the Central Board of Secondary Education’s Class 12 exams yet, but top scorers of the past few years have invariably scored over 99%. While the board takes into account all five subjects an examinee writes exams in while deciding his score, Delhi University has a policy of considering the “best four subjects” – the four subjects the candidate has scored maximum marks in – for admission.

Another factor that sets cut-offs high at Delhi University is the large number of students it attracts from state boards – sometimes, the size of their contingent in some classes is disproportionately large. A widely-cited example is, again, that of the Shri Ram College of Commerce. Last year, 110 of the 160 students who made the cut on the first day of admissions in that college were from Tamil Nadu, 50 of them from one school in Erode district. This led to speculation that some state boards may be marking their students leniently to help them get admission in top institutions like Delhi University.

However, Pandey said soaring cut-offs cannot be blamed solely on moderation. “I would not recommend completely delinking the two [higher education admission and board exam results] but increase in cut-offs is not a valid reason for doing away with moderation,” he argued. “There are other reasons for it. There is a massive shortage of good colleges. Institutions have not been established or supported the way they should have been and you have a very large number of students competing for very few seats.”