Question paper leaks are a common feature of many state board exams but the mass leak of question papers of the Central Board of Secondary Education has created a furore.

Even the announcement of a re-examination has invited protests.

Missing from the discussions, however, is the basic question: do board exams in India serve any purpose? Does the absence of paper leaks and cheating make exams fair?

Educationists have long argued that board exams are not the best way to assess the capability of students. Given the set pattern of questions students are coached to “crack”, a strategy that relies on matching answers to a pre-decided “answer key”, and the increased emphasis on short-answer questions testing memory rather than long-answer ones testing thought and expression, the board exam is no measure of learning. “It gives you a number, it does not tell you what you know, which a school-leaving exam should,” explained Anita Rampal of Delhi University’s Department of Education.

Worse, in India, unlike most progressive systems in the world, board exams are used for a purpose they were not designed for: entrance to higher education.

In the United States, students leaving school write a standardised test only if they plan to apply for higher education. United Kingdom universities may or may not consider school grades but even when they do, the grades form only one in a number of factors influencing admission.

But in India, board exam scores are the sole criterion for admission in hundreds of undergraduate programmes and in some of the most popular universities. The blurring of lines between a school-leaving exam that measures learning and a selective exam aimed at eliminating candidates seeking admission has raised the stakes for students immensely. It has also contributed to stress, the dilution in standards across state and national boards, and bizarre practices such as marks inflation. Boards have been accused of awarding extra marks to examinees to give them an edge in college admissions, resulting in unrealistically high scores. Some schools have stopped teaching the foundational Class 11 syllabus because that exam has no bearing on admissions based on board results. As Rampal put it, these public exams are now “a futile exercise”.

One exam, different purposes

Educationists say the school leaving exam must be more decentralised and separated from a university entrance exam.

Janaki Rajan, from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Education at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, pointed out that in American schools, students are simply handed portfolios when they leave and these contain detailed records of all they have done over the years. There is no board exam. “This takes away the pressure from the child and the school,” she said. Only those who want to enrol in higher education take a standardised test but that is “geared to university expectations”. It can be taken multiple times to improve scores and is never the only criterion for admission in a university.

In the United Kingdom, grades in subjects studied at “advanced levels” may or may not matter and even where they do count, there are a “slew of other processes”, as Rajan put it, regulating admissions.

The Indian board exam, on the other hand, is expected to serve both purposes. Its scores are regarded as the final word on schooling and they are used to select candidates for undergraduate programmes, although, as Rampal pointed out, “the nature of a selective exam is very different”.

The school-leaving exam “must tell you what you have learnt in school”, she explained. “It is an end in itself,” added Rajan. A selective exam tests suitability for a particular programme and helps eliminate candidates. Given the scale at which a board exam is conducted and in its attempt to straddle both domains, it ends up with “no connect with the school system”, said Rampal. “There is an entire discourse on standardisation – everyone wants to know where they stand – but the board result does not tell you that.”

The link with higher education has raised the stakes so high that in many schools, the Class 11 curriculum is neglected. “That does not even come into the picture and many schools do not even teach it,” said Ashok Pandey, principal of Ahlcon International School in Delhi. He is also a strong advocate of a system of year-long continuous evaluation that had replaced the Class 10 board exam in 2010 but was discontinued from this year.

While board exams leave little room for schools to weigh in on results, Pandey pointed out, universities in many foreign countries are content to grant admission on “predictive scores” based on the Class 11 exams conducted locally, by the school. Proof of achievements in other areas, written work and the school’s own recommendation, all go to support an application.

‘A mechanistic model’

Rajan also argued that over the past few years, the Central Board of Secondary Education has had little academic input and grown more bureaucratic. It has also been “punching above its weight”, taking on the responsibility for conducting several large entrance tests including the preliminary Joint Entrance Examination (Mains) for engineering colleges and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for medical colleges. This centralisation of entrance exams has allowed it to influence academic decisions on syllabus and question patterns of state boards, otherwise entirely outside the CBSE’s jurisdiction. The proliferation of new private schools even in states that had strong state boards has also expanded its reach.

In 2015, the latest year for which the Ministry of Human Resource Development collated board exam statistics, 1.28 crore candidates had taken a Class 12 board exam. Of them, 10.4 lakh were from CBSE. Maharashtra’s state board had tested 12.8 lakh and Uttar Pradesh 25.9 lakh. But CBSE students are spread across the country.

Conducting examinations for thousands of schools and lakhs of students each year, the CBSE has been “pushed into a certain format because of the logistics of conducting examinations”, said Rampal. Stress on short answers and multiple-choice questions is increasing because that is the only way the board knows of making the process of marking a very large and diverse set of students objective. To ensure parity in marking, answer patterns are standardised through “answer keys” – model answers developed by the board to its own question papers against which students’ answers are assessed. “But this mechanistic model of assessment is shallow and limited,” said Rampal.

Crowd in higher education

The stress on students to perform well in the board exams would be less intense if the public institutions of higher education were not so over-subscribed. Not only has public higher education in many states not grown enough to accommodate all those who want to enrol – 64% of degree-awarding colleges are private colleges unaided by the government – Rampal pointed out, universities and colleges have declined. They have been crippled by large vacancies, tightening of government purse-strings and general mismanagement. The survey shows that that number of state public universities grew from 286 in 2011-’12 to 345 in 2016-’17. Over the same period, the number of state private universities more than doubled – from 105 to 233. But most students have continued to attend public universities. Enrolment in the public institutions crossed 25 lakh in 2013-’14. It is increasing for private universities but is still under 10 lakh.

India has an average of 28 colleges for every lakh of eligible 18-23 year-olds – not counting institutions awarding diplomas – but a large number of students tend to cluster in a handful of cities. Delhi sees the greatest rush. Many students landing in the city to seek admissions in Delhi University come from states where boards have a reputation for generous marking. The Delhi government, arguing that the Capital’s own school graduates are being cheated out of seats in colleges affiliated to the centrally-run Delhi University but funded by the state government, unsuccessfully tried to reserve 85% seats in 28 staff-funded colleges in 2017. The marks inflation has meant that colleges admit students with high scores but are not certain if they are really getting the best lot.

Some universities and colleges hold entrance tests or interviews for admission but given the limited number of seats, even these become high-stakes.