In 2018, many school students across the country will have to take more board examinations that they do at present.

The Central Board of Secondary Education has made the Class 10 board exam compulsory again. Between 2010 and 2017, students of schools affiliated to the board could instead take a test covering half a year’s syllabus and have their answers evaluated and graded by their teachers. But from the coming year, they will be tested on the entire year’s syllabus, assessed by teachers from other schools, and receive marks instead of grades. There are over 19,300 schools, both public and private, affiliated to the Central board.

In Tamil Nadu, schools under the state board will hold a board exam for students of Class 11 – in addition to the Class 10 and Class 12 exams – from next year.

Also in 2018, the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, a national but private board, will hold a trial run for board exams in Classes 5 and 8. The Rajasthan government started year-end exams for Class 5 in 2017 and has been conducting a board exam for Class 8 students since 2015. The Madhya Pradesh government, too, had announced in March that it would test students of Classes 5 and 8 from 2018 “to maintain quality in education”.

According to the Central and state governments, frequent exams will help improve learning. But educationists are sceptical and point out that such a system – frequently linked to student suicides“invokes and celebrates fear” and does little good.

“They encourage narrow, restricted learning as students and teachers focus entirely on cracking the public exams,” said Disha Nawani of the Centre for Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “These are good only for eliminating students [before the next level of education].”

She called the renewed emphasis on board exams a “totally regressive” move.

Educationists also fear that a proposed amendment to the Right to Education Act, 2009, to allow the detention of children before Class 8, will create more room for such exams. The Act, which promises free and compulsory education for all children between six and 14 years of age, has a no-detention clause that prohibits schools from failing or expelling any student up to Class 8. The amendment Bill, introduced in Parliament in August, provides for a “regular examination in the fifth class and in the eighth class at the end of every academic year”.

Nawani said this “wide and open-ended” provision “suggests you will have more public examinations”.

In ‘exam mode’

Many teachers support board exams as they feel a certain amount of stress is good for students. “A little fear makes children study more seriously,” said Ameen Kayamkhani, a primary school teacher in Jaipur. “And since their own teachers tend to be soft on them, external examiners are brought in. But no one is detained.”

Students receive an overall grade and not marks in the Class 5 exam conducted by Rajasthan’s State Council of Educational Research and Training, which designs syllabi and textbooks, and the network of District Institutes of Education and Training under it. The Class 8 exam is conducted by the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education, although its expertise is not in primary education. The two-and-a-half-hour exam is based on syllabus covered in the second (winter) term and is worth 80 marks.

CP Sharma, a Class 8 teacher in Rajasthan and a member of the All India Primary Teachers Federation, also believes “a little pressure is good” for students.

This assumption partly influenced Tamil Nadu’s decision to introduce public exams in Class 11, with the objective of improving the performance of students in competitive examinations such as the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for admission to medical and dentistry colleges. This will keep students in “exam mode” for three years straight (from Class 10 to Class 12), said Chennai-based educationist V Vasanthi Devi. She described exam mode as “no recreational activities, no playing or socialising”.

In a similar vein, many schools under the Central Board of Secondary Education scrapped cultural programmes and competitions and started remedial classes following the board’s announcement in December 2016 to revive the Class 10 board exam from 2018, said Ashok Pandey, the principal of Ahlcon International School in Delhi. “They [students] got to know [about the change] at the end of Class 9, which they had studied under the CCE [continuous comprehensive evaluation] programme, writing exams on only half the syllabus at a time and being assessed by their own teachers,” he said. “It was a challenge to realign our systems.”

However, the chief executive of the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, Gerry Arathoon, insisted that the primary school exams the board will conduct from 2018 will be different. He said “students will not be required to prepare, nor asked to recall anything”. They will be asked “to apply their knowledge for problem-solving and critical thinking” instead and the tests will be used by teachers and administrators to “measure the pupils’ performance”.

Fair and objective?

Despite the concerns about board exams, there is little resistance to them. “There is no opposition to them here,” said Ameen Kayamkhani, the teacher from Jaipur.

There is a reason for this public support. Board exams are conducted by outside agencies with common question papers, external examiners and examination centres, and are hence perceived to be fair and objective, explained Nawani. Parents, administrators and even some teachers believe they reveal the true picture of a child’s progress and are “more legitimate” than a teacher’s assessment of their own students.

But educationists hold the opposite view. “This black-box approach to learning does not work because it is not tuned into differences among students,” said Nawani. “All children are not equally positioned in society. With these exams, we are closing our eyes to what is happening in the schools and judging the students.”

They also dismiss the argument that fear of performing poorly in a board exam drives students to work harder, which in turn advances learning. “Failing will not improve learning,” said Nawani. “Building knowledge by making linkages and connections, fostering creativity and opening up of the mind – none of that will happen.”

This has implications for teachers too. With their autonomy curtailed, they will only “teach to the test”, educationists warned.

Ashok Pandey agreed: “Now teachers are focussing only on the [Class 10] board exam.”

Pressure on teachers

Educationists as well as teachers warned that frequent board examinations would have an adverse effect on teachers too. An educationist associated with a government institution said, on condition of anonymity, that the assessment of students “is used as a teacher accountability measure”.

Ameen Kayamkhani and CP Singh agreed, saying that teachers are often served notices and asked to explain if their students perform poorly. “Teachers are held responsible,” said Kayamkhani. “They may have their increments withheld or promotion stalled.”

Kayamkhani said that this might drive teachers to agree among themselves to be more lenient while marking the exam papers. V Vasanthi Devi pointed out that in extreme cases, it may even push teachers to help students cheat.