To help cope with the stress of the Class 10 board exam, being reintroduced in March after eight years, a private school in East Delhi has issued an advisory. It is for the parents.

Listing the warning signs of stress in children – absentmindedness, aggression, changes in eating habits – the advisory tells parents what they should or should not do. They must not “nag the child” or compare them with others but set realistic goals instead. To these, Puneet Duggal, in charge of senior classes at Ahlcon International School, which has issued the advisory, adds: “Don’t talk about the exam or preparation at the dining table.”

In 2009, the Central Board of Secondary Education, India’s only public national school board, decided to make the Class 10 board exam optional. Lifting the stress of a public exam off the shoulders of young students was one reason for the decision. That a public examination were not the best way to judge merit or measure progress was another.

From 2010, a large number of students – over 7.7 lakh out of 15.89 lakh in 2017 – opted to be evaluated by their own schools through the year. The rest chose a “board-based” second semester exam conducted by the CBSE. In this case, the principal of a Delhi government school explained, the board exam accounted for just 40 marks out of 100 and tested children only on what they had covered in the winter semester of Class 10. Another 40 marks were for the internal exam held at the end of the first semester and the remaining 20 for a other curricular and co-curricular activities. “That board exam, even though it was public and evaluated by external examiners, was not the same as what we will have now,” he said.

In 2016, however, the CBSE reversed its decision and again made the Class 10 board exam compulsory from 2018. Over 16.38 lakh students have registered to write the exam this March. Because this batch discovered they would have to write the board exam only toward the end of Class 9, schools have had to deal with the sudden change and the stress it has brought. So, they are getting the children used to writing a three-hour paper, helping them remember all they have covered over the school year – and trying to get parents off their backs.

Does it matter?

The Class 10 board exam does not mark the end of schooling and is not necessarily the high-stakes affair that the Class 12 exam is. By determining which student gets admission in what discipline for higher education, the Class 12 exam has a direct impact on their future. Some private colleges, though, do consider both Class 10 and Class 12 scores for admission.

Performance in the Class 10 exam is less decisive. It will be only one of the factors deciding whether the student gets to study science in Classes 11 and 12. Indeed, when children were awarded grades based on progress made through the year, including on non-academic activities, their average grades were used for the same purpose, said Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, in Delhi.

V Subbulakshmi, principal of Geethaanjali Senior Secondary School in Erode, Tamil Nadu, said most of the state’s CBSE-affiliated schools – numbering 1,700-1,800 – conduct an entrance test for children joining them from other schools in Class 11. “For the schools’ own children, teachers already know if they will be able to handle mathematics and science,” she said.

The stakes are higher in states where large numbers leave CBSE-affiliated schools for those under state education boards after Class 10. Mansoor Ali Khan, principal of Delhi Public School in Bangalore, said half the students in Karnataka leave the CBSE system after Class 10 to write the state’s equivalent of Class 11 and 12 exams – Pre-University Certification Exam 1 and Exam 2. “Many children feel the state curriculum will help them do better in the CET,” Khan explained, referring to the state-level common entrance tests for professional courses such as engineering. “And admission in pre-university classes is on the basis of Class 10 results. With the grade system, their progress through the year and in all activities counted. Now, their performance on just that one day will matter. I hope this does not turn into the rat-race we had earlier, with children running to private tuition classes in the evenings and on holidays.”

A sudden change

High-stakes or not, the impending Class 10 board exam has all involved parties – parents, teachers, students – exercised. “People were not prepared mentally,” said BS Yadav, principal of Delhi Public School in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. “It came as a jolt.”

Students, for one, have had to get used to practices they had not encountered before – writing three-hour papers, recalling what they have covered over the entire year instead of in just one semester, managing time. Springdales School has conducted seven-eight workshops over the past few months to prepare the students; Ahlcon International is holding a series of mock-tests.

“They are a little confused about how to face their studies now that it is just one exam,” said Khan. “Parents are feeling the pressure too and want their children to suddenly start 16-17 hours in a day.

Yadav has had parents complain that their children “cannot sit still for three hours at a stretch”.

Tania Joshi, principal of The Indian School in Delhi, said a parent complained that her child “is still spending just two hours” a day studying. “The parent said she has already removed the television and the phone,” said Joshi. “Parents do not know how much to push and when to stop. They don’t understand that you cannot force children to study.”

Some schools now offer counselling to help manage the stress. “A very bright child went to the counsellor to say she was losing her confidence,” Joshi said.

The public nature of the exam brings its own pressures – children go to other schools, or “exam centres”, to write the papers, they are invigilated and their papers evaluated by teachers from other schools. Duggal and Joshi have both asked parents to visit their child’s examination centre before the exam begins.

Pressure on teachers

In Delhi, even government schools run by the Department of Education are affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education. Here, the pressure is mainly on teachers. Poor performance in the pre-board exam – typically held in January – had the education department serve show cause notices to many teachers.

“We always mark strictly during the pre-board examination so that children feel the need to work harder but if you put teachers under pressure, they will feel compelled to mark leniently – or even fudge marks – to avoid punishment,” said the government school principal. “The government should abandon its bar graphs and pie charts and simply ensure that a teacher can teach effectively in class and that their skills are regularly updated.”