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Can inflated marks deliver education?

For the kids who burnt the proverbial midnight oil, no doubt it is time to rejoice, but for the guardians of education this should not be a cause of comfort.

A K Ghosh | New Delhi |

After publication of results of the Board examinations, academic circles are wonderstruck at how the record-breaking marks of the previous year have been kept intact this year. Who could imagine a couple of years ago that even a 90 per cent score would seem relatively low? The results can spell upward social mobility or stagnation, hanging precariously to a lifeline promised by one small scrap of certification.

For the kids who burnt the proverbial midnight oil, no doubt it is time to rejoice, but for the guardians of education this should not be a cause of comfort. The highest marks – – 499 out of 500, which includes English as a subject – have caused consternation. Can an answer summarising a complex set of ideas be so perfect that it need not be improved upon and therefore must be awarded full marks? Admittedly, performing well in the examination is necessary for subsequent success and career prospects. However, the recent inflation of marks has denuded the practical value.

Many institutions are disregarding board results and conducting their own admission tests. The rationale of evaluating students based on a single examination is highly suspect. The most influential factor in the process of learning in high school is the students’ perception of the way marks are awarded. In a system that lays such misplaced emphasis on achievement rather than developing the true potential of a student, who then is to blame? Is it the teachers and schools who perpetuate the syndrome by concentrating only on the syllabus, or is it the students who increasingly have a unidimensional approach to education with a rather impossible percentage as their target? Is it the education board that tries, most often unsuccessfully, to centralise a unique uniform education system conducted in as fair a manner as possible, or is it the reluctant examiner whose casual approach to evaluation often endangers the future of students? The Madhyamik fiasco in West Bengal in 2002 illustrated what happens when the system of assessment, originally designed for a few thousand examinees to be dealt with by a handful of examiners, is carried to the absurd length of letting thousands of examiners subjectively measure the learning of millions.

The sudden rush of court cases must have been prompted by the fact that the marking system has no credibility and that boards are hardly concerned about improving matters. The Madhyamik Board received as many as 12,843 applications for scrutiny and 21,022 for review of marks, of which more than 7,500 achieved an upward revision. The demand for re- evaluation was raised all over the country in the early 1980s because examinees were not satisfied with the initial markings. For quite some time, the feeling has been gaining ground that the examination system appears to be wrongly positioned as part of the education delivery system.

While it is intended to support the system, it has become an end in itself. It is unfortunate that education has been transformed into the examination system. It seems today that we want to have examinations that do not involve genuine scrutiny. Of course, examinations are not for their own sake. Professor JN Kapoor succinctly enumerates the purpose of examinations: i) to evaluate the performance of students and to form a judgement about their academic achievements; ii) to inform the students about their progress so that they adjust their teaching programmes accordingly; iii) to inform teachers of the progress of students so that they can adjust their teaching programmes accordingly; iv) to provide motivation for hard and continuous work by the students; v) to provide motivation for continuous improvement of teaching by teachers, and vi) to provide useful and reliable information to prospective employers about the potentialities of the candidates as revealed by the examinations. In fact, till the middle of the 19th century, the oral tradition dominated the evaluation system in educational institutions. It was Horace Mann who first advocated the superiority of written exams and the process was accepted by and by.

With the development of the famous Simon-Binett IQ test by the turn of the 20th century, a new era of testing began. Then developed several tests to assess academic attainments and to investigate mental, emotional and social conditions that affect educational outputs. But the issue of examination reforms has always engaged the attention of educationists. Back in 1902, the Indian University Commission called exams “the greatest evil from which university education in India suffers”. The University Education Commission (1948-49) headed by Dr S Radhakrishnan, stressed the need for examination reform. Later, the Kothari Commission (1964-66) and the New Education Policy (1986- 92) emphasised the need for such reforms. Dr DS Kothari speaking at a seminar described examinations as an “irrationality” in the existing education system. He held the view that students’ knowledge could not be judged by marks alone.

There must be some substance in what Dr Kothari said. There is no denying that the results of examinations are erratic and open to question. It is, however, strange that many people, having accepted this conclusion, go on to argue in favour of a more accurate system. All systems of selection are concerned with predictions which cannot be entirely accurate and with the assessment of qualities which are not measurable and can only be subjectively assessed. The special fault of the examination system is not that it is erratic, but that it purports to be accurate. Experience suggests that it is not possible to make examinations absolutely fair and accurate. This, however, is not the only reason for reform. Methods of examination have a great effect on methods of teaching and on students’ method of working. Each system will develop specific intellectual qualities in those who are subjected to it; it may be a valid ground for criticism of our present system that it is developing the wrong intellectual qualities. In our country the studentteacher relationship is a one-way street – the student performs and the teacher judges.

Seldom is there any thought that students and teachers are somehow partners in the teaching-learning process. The traditional system of education ends with the declaration of the examination results. In fact, this is the beginning of the educational process. An indepth analysis of the variance in performance should be followed by a game plan for improvement. This should automatically provide inputs for an “evaluation scheme for standards” for the next cycle. The decline in the reliability of the present assessment system that stems from lack of seriousness, both academic and administrative, needs attention. But the fact will remain that marking answer scripts, to an extent, depends on the predilection and experience of the teacher. There is no chance of achieving uniformity in marking. Nevertheless, it is difficult to dispense with the prevailing system of pass-fail mode of evaluation. No country has perhaps succeeded in doing so. It has often been argued that there should be a system of continuous internal grading. But such a system must rest on two assumptions: the teacher’s integrity should be above reproach and the student’s willingness to accept the system should be unqualified. It can be a success only if drastic changes are made in the curriculum, which would further demand a corresponding change in the pattern of questions. The idea of introducing a mixture of subjective and objective assessment may result in mere ad hocism and as such may not serve the purpose in the present scenario.

An independent autonomous body – like the US Education Testing Services – which conducts the preliminary scholastic aptitude test (SAT), achievement tests in fields of the student’s choice and the graduate record examination could be set up. Apart from offering a uniform testing system for all students, a score received from such institutions could be used to supplement final exam results. Even within the prevalent systems where the review facility is fettered by conditions, the boards and other bodies must by law be made more accountable. It is surprising that the method of joint evaluation has escaped the notice of our educators. The idea is to encounter the student and the teacher jointly to evaluate the student’s work and teacher’s contribution to it. The point is that a student ought to have a way of knowing what his skills and weaknesses are. Accountability, moreover, seems to have escaped all except the helpless student who remains an unfortunate victim of a system that breeds confusion. After all, marks matter.

(The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata and is presently with Rabindra Bharati University)