Late in April, when the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development announced that officials of 32 state and central boards of education had decided to scrap the moderation of marks – also known as the grace marks policy – from 2017, school teachers across cities felt conflicted.

Most agreed that the practice had to go. It involves giving extra marks to students to compensate for errors in the question paper or difficult questions. It is also used to standardise marking when different students get different sets of questions for the same exam. Teachers say it is also responsible for unrealistically high scores, the steep rise in college cut-offs or the minimum scores required for admission, and the resultant stress.

Despite this, they advised caution. With board results and college admissions inextricably linked, such a reform would be tenable and fair only if all boards adopted it together. They warned that without uniformity, students from boards that follow the moderation policy would have higher marks and claim most of the undergraduate seats in central institutions like Delhi University, while those from boards without moderation would be left behind.

That is precisely what might happen this year.

On Tuesday, responding to a petition filed by a parent challenging the Central Board of Secondary Education’s decision to not moderate results this year, the Delhi High Court ruled that the board has to retain moderation for this year. The CBSE, which has 18,500 affiliated schools, has so far been silent on whether it will challenge the decision or follow it. Earlier, as state boards had started declaring their Class 12 exam results and it became clear that there was no consensus over marks moderation, the CBSE had made panicked requests to Delhi University for special consideration for its examinees in admissions. Ironically, the April meeting of 32 boards had taken place on the CBSE’s initiative.

No matter what the CBSE decides, some students will suffer.

An analysis by of the results of some states shows a wide gap in the exam outcomes in states that have abandoned marks moderation this year and those that have not.

Pass percentages

On May 15, the school education secretary, Anil Swarup, tweeted: “Rajasthan [Education] Board becomes the [third] one after Karnataka [and] Punjab to announce results without spiking of marks in the name of moderation.”

The three state boards have registered decreases in pass-percentages – the percentage of students to clear the exam – which has been attributed to their stopping moderation.

In Karnataka, the pass-percentage dropped from 57.2% in 2016 to 52.4% this year. And in Punjab, it dropped even more sharply – from 76.8% in 2016 to 62.4%. Change is evident also from the board’s merit lists. In 2016, over 341 candidates scored over 95%. In 2017, their number is down to just 126, albeit with three scoring 100%.

Asked what they propose to do now that CBSE may reintroduce moderation, the Punjab School Education Board chairman, S Balbir Singh Dhol, said: “We will study the copy of the decision and then decide.”

The case of Rajasthan is more interesting. Despite being patted on the back for not moderating marks this year, the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education’s chairman, BL Chaudhary said they “never did it” anyway. Rajasthan has declared Class 12 results for science and commerce streams only, and the combined pass-percentage is a little over 90%.

Neither Rajasthan nor Karnataka have made public the number of candidates who scored 90% or above in Class 12 – in many ways a better indicator than pass-percentages on the impact of moderation on results and college cut-offs.

But the reductions in pass-percentages did not reassure as it soon became clear that each board was doing its own thing and not following the CBSE.

If the pass-percentages of state boards in 2017 show anything, it is that there was no consensus on whether to moderate. Punjab, which has not, has seen a sharp drop. Some others have seen a rise. The figures have been rounded off to the first decimal place.

Rising pass-percentages

Those expecting pass-percentages to drop uniformly watched the situation unfold with growing disappointment and alarm.

In Tamil Nadu, the pass-percentage in state board schools increased from 91.4% in 2016 to 92.1% in 2017. Over 46,000 examinees have scored over 90%.

In Kerala, it has risen by three points to 83.4%. The state board has awarded A+, or marks over 90%, to 11,768 students – 1,898 more than last year. “We have not moderated but done only subjectivity correction,” said an official of the directorate of higher secondary education, Kerala, asking not to be identified. He then proceeded to define “subjectivity correction” in the practically same terms used for moderation. “We adjust marks when the questions are too difficult or marking too strict,” he said.

In Odisha, where the state has only declared science stream results so far, the pass-percentage rose by one point. BN Mishra, controller, exams, explained that they followed their standard practice of moderating up to three percentage points this year too.

Given the differing responses to the Centre’s call for abolishing moderation, CBSE students have welcomed a reset to the old system.

“I am relieved,” said Sumanyu Bhatia, a Class 12 science student at Delhi’s Ahlcon International School. “Without moderation, CBSE students would have scored low marks and been unable to get into Delhi University. The seats would have gone to [students of] other boards. My classmates in humanities and commerce were especially worried because admission for them [typically] does not involve entrance tests.”

Another Class 12 student, Akankhya Behera, in CBSE-affiliated Delhi Public School, Bengaluru, too was pleased with the High Court’s decision. “I do think the practice of awarding grace marks is unfair but CBSE should not have changed the policy after the exams were held,” she said. “Also, all boards should change together, or none at all.”

The school’s principal Mansoor Ali Khan admitted that while the High Court’s direction may protect his students, it may put those following the Karnataka board at a disadvantage.

Knee-jerk reaction?

Many principals and school association members across cities had anticipated the mess, even while agreeing that some intervention was necessary to arrest marks inflation.

While the government initially suggested that the decision to not moderate was a done deal, the Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar himself walked back those statements. He tweeted that the states have been left to decide what to do about moderation.

“A coordination committee meeting is only that,” quipped KC Kedia of the Mumbai-based Unaided Schools Forum, an association of Maharashtra’s private schools. “The boards are independent. The decision at the meeting was never legally-binding.”

Ashok Pandey, the chairperson of the National Progressive Schools Conference and principal of Ahlcon International, had also pointed out that education is in the concurrent list with the Centre and states sharing governance. State boards are not obliged to follow the CBSE’s lead.

“This was a knee-jerk solution,” said Khan. “The government should have taken more time, worked with all the boards and developed a uniform policy – not just for moderation but for evaluation itself.”