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The young ‘achievers’

Who could imagine a couple of years ago that even a 90 per cent score would seem to be relatively less?

AK Ghosh | New Delhi |

Performing well in an 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 on the basis of a single examination is highly suspect.

As the results of the Board examinations have started coming in, the academic circuit is discussing the pros and cons of the record-breaking marks of humanities students. Questions are being raised about the method of assessment. The unusually high scores have been attributed to the multiple-choice questions and the short-answer format that has been favoured by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).

It has been argued that this reflects the poor teaching-learning process as students are not trained to develop a coherent knowledge of the subject that they are studying. They merely learn how to crack the code of the examination without grasping concepts in general.

Who could imagine a couple of years ago that even a 90 per cent score would seem to be relatively less? The results can spell upward social mobility or stagnation, hanging precariously to a lifeline promised by one small scrap of certification.

For the young achievers, it is time to rejoice but for the guardians of education this may not be a cause for comfort. The highest marks ~ 499 out of 500,in humanities, which includes English as a subject ~ have caused consternation.

Do the language papers only have objective-type questions where the answers will fetch full marks or none? Are the questions really that simple? For brief questions other than the objective types, the criterion for marks is not clear. 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? And what happens to the assessment of the other examiner? It may be taken for granted that a wide spectrum of marks, say 80 to 100, is distributed almost randomly for answer papers that are mostly of the same category qualitatively.

Admittedly, performing well in an 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 on the basis of 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.

There is a feeling that our assessment system is unreliable and it should be revised. Dr A Edwin Harper, jr and Dr VS Misra, in their book ‘Research on Examination in India’, published by NCERT, stated that a candidate’s success or failure is due as much to luck as to merit. They found no uniformity in the marking. There was a wide disagreement over the class or division awarded. In course of another study, the authors found that examiners did not give the same marks when they marked the same answer papers.

They suggested that grading in terms of five or six categories be adopted instead of the 100 marks scale, that there should be proper scale conversion of the marks in different subjects, that choice be eliminated from question papers, and that there should be a system of grace marks based on the standard error of marking that cannot eliminate erratic marking.

It is a system that gives misplaced emphasis on achievement rather than developing the true potential of a student. Is it the teachers and schools that perpetuate the syndrome by concentrating only on the syllabus or is it the students who increasingly have a unidimensional approach to education with impossible percentages as their targets?

Is it the education board that tries, most often unsuccessfully, to centralise a uniform education system conducted in as fair a manner as possible, or is it the reluctant examiners 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 the boards are not 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.

The examination system appears to be wrongly positioned as part of the education delivery system. While it is intended to support the education system, it has become an end in itself. It is rather unfortunate that education has been transformed into the examination system. We want to hold examinations that do not involve genuine assessment.

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 value of the written exam over the oral and the process was gradually accepted.

With the development of the famous Simon-Binet IQ test by the turn of the 20th century, a new era of testing began. Several tests were devised to assess academic attainments and investigate mental, emotional and social conditions.

But the issue of examination reforms has always engaged the attention of experts. 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 Radhakrishnan stressed the need for examination reform. Later, the Kothari Commission (1964-66) emphasised the need for such reforms. Dr DS Kothari speaking at a seminar described examinations as an “irrationality “ in the existing education system. He believed that students’ knowledge could not be judged by marks alone.

Experience suggests that it is not possible to make examinations absolutely fair and accurate. This, however, is not the only case for reform. Methods of examination have a critical effect on the methods of teaching and on students’ methods of studying.

Each system will develop particular intellectual qualities among 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 student-teacher relationship is a one-way traffic ~ the student performs and the teacher judges. The fact of the matter is that students and teachers are partners in the teaching-learning process. The traditional system ends with the declaration of the examination results. In fact, this is the beginning of the educational process.

An in-depth analysis of the variance in performance should be followed by a strategy for improvement. This should automatically provide inputs for an “evaluation scheme for standards “ in the next cycle.

The decline in the reliability of the present assessment system that stems from lack of seriousness, both academic and administrative, calls for reflection. Marking of answer papers can, to an extent, depend on the predilection and experience of the teacher. There is no possibility of achieving uniformity in terms of marking. Nevertheless, it is difficult to dispense with the prevailing system of pass-fail mode of evaluation.

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. Evaluation must eventually enable the student to know both his strong points and weaknesses.

(The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata)