It is not without reason that board exams play an unenviable role in almost all schoolchildren’s lives and the entire ecosystem around them, especially teachers and parents preparing them for this grand event. The recent leak of mathematics and economics papers for, respectively, Class 10 and Class 12 examinations conducted by the Central Board of School Education has created a near national crisis, with the media discussing it and the opposition political parties accusing the government of breach of trust. Demands are being made for the resignation of the CBSE chief and the human resource development minister as well as measures to ensure unassailable security around the bureaucratic machinery that prepares, transports, stocks and distributes exam papers. Children and parents are crying hoarse about how this has damaged their morale, undermined their year-long effort entailing pain, sweat and tears, and spoilt their much deserved stress-free holiday, one associated with the closure of a mega event.

But more than ascertaining the validity of these concerns, legitimate as they are in their own right, it is important to understand why board exams occupy such a dominant space in our school system, their implications for learning, and the possibilities of a less intimidating system that is pedagogically sound, student-centred and not plagued by concerns of security.

Board exams in India were instituted by the colonial administrators to bring “uniformity in assessment” to an otherwise disparate education system. They changed almost all aspects of the Indian school system, standardising syllabi, prescribing textbooks, appointing teachers as government employees and formally pacing pedagogy in a yearly academic calendar. Common public examinations, popularly known as board exams, were the hallmark of this system. The idea was to ensure uniformity, impartiality and anonymity of both the teacher and the taught. On the face of it, it seemed a fair system for it rewarded the “deserving” and penalised the “undeserving”. The few hours of the exam became a “do or die” moment for all involved, especially students. It also became an occasion for invoking divine faith, exhibiting religious symbols on forehead and the answer paper, and making a beeline for places of worship. So sacrosanct was its nature and effect that it became a matter of utmost confidentiality, shrouded in secrecy and handled with absolute caution. This acquired legitimacy ensured its continuity even after India attained independence. Despite causing enormous stress to students and several post-independence committees pointing out fundamental flaws in this system, we continued to celebrate its ability to measure performance of students, assess their worth and distribute or withhold rewards to them. Not only that, we became suspicious of any reforms that were suggested to change its form and importance.

Fair system?

The reason for the resilience of the system of board exams was that it worked wonders in a society where people were stratified into groups, resources were unequally divided and opportunities for future growth were limited. It put everyone on a par, no matter how stark the difference between them, the conditions under which they grew up, or the schools they studied in. Once the results were declared, no one questioned their credibility. The rewards, be it seats in institutions of higher learning or jobs, were limited, the argument went, and what better system to distribute them in this manner. But how fair was this system which measured with a common yardstick children who were so different in almost every aspect?

Interestingly, everyone accepted the reward system, praising themselves, their hard work, ability of deserving it, or blaming their bad luck, inability of deserving it. It is a system that instantly justifies both success and failure to students and everyone associated with them.

Another damaging implication of board exams has been for the entire process and meaning of what we consider learning. The exams measure differences among students in a standardised manner and ask questions that usually have one right answer and which, therefore, are easy to assess and mark. Such questions are largely of rote nature, whereby information and facts are memorised from textbooks and reproduced in the answer sheets. Such exams reduce the scope of learning in the classroom for both teachers and students, and limit any divergent expression in exams that could make the task of standardisation or marking difficult for the examiner or the board. It also goes against the spirit of cooperative learning as it implicitly encourages the students to compete with each other for limited gains. That is why students guard their answer sheets during exams so that their neighbour is unable to see their answers. One has to simply observe the body language of students writing exams to know this – they get all curled up around their answer sheets to ward off any prying eye.

Several committees set up over the years to examine the Indian education system, especially examinations, have pointed out flaws in this system and suggested alternatives. Reforms proposed by them include school-based assessments that are regular, non-threatening and more comprehensive. The National Curriculum Framework of 2005 questioned the validity of board exams and reiterated the need for a more wholesome measure of assessment. The Right to Education Act, 2009 endorsed this and banned all board exams till Class 8, replacing them with the continuous and comprehensive evaluation system. Even the CBSE took the bold decision of making Class 10 exams optional in schools affiliated to it. The Right to Education Act further mandated a policy, applicable till Class 8, where children did not have to repeat a grade even on failing. These reforms, however, did not go down well with not just school authorities but also parents and teachers. Now, board exams are slated to be reinstituted as early as Class 5, and failing them will necessitate repeating the grade. While progressive educationists have condemned such amendments to the Right to Education Act, politicians, learning assessment agencies and the other “concerned parties” have hailed the changes. Since the burden of not manifesting the desired learning is singularly placed on children, they must pay for this by repeating the grade.

There is no denying the unfortunate consequences of the leak of question papers for students, their families and even teachers. But rather than only debating how to prevent such leaks and fixing accountability, it would be wiser to expend energy reflecting on the nature of learning in our schools, the impact of assessment systems on defining such learning, the nature of textbooks we write and promote and, most importantly, the creative energies of teachers and students that are made redundant in such a learning-assessment environment.

Disha Nawani is professor and chairperson, Centre for Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.