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Marks inflation shows we need urgent education reforms

PTI file photo.

It’s the season of final exam results for Classes X and XII and newspapers are full of photos of students who have scored exceptionally high marks. It is indeed nice to see that so many children have scored such high marks. But, it is also the time to pause to take a critical look at the education and examination system.

Back when we were writing these exams in the 1960s, obtaining a first class (60 per cent or higher) was considered a high achievement, so much so that some people would ask me if I got a second class, perhaps not to displease me in case I did not achieve the coveted first class. Indeed, in even earlier times there would be at most a handful of students who would have passed with a first class, and there were instances when even the topper would have obtained only a second class.

So, what has changed over the last several decades? Have the children of the present generation become brighter by leaps and bounds compared to children of earlier generations? It is a fact that in the intervening period, technology has changed in mind boggling ways and has made information widely available, with many Internet sources that deal with syllabus topics. This has supplemented the resource material needed for better understanding of topics covered in the school. However, this is likely not the route taken by most of the high scorers in these exams.

Most students enrol in tuition classes to supplement their regular classes, thanks to parental and peer pressure. The extreme competition to get affordable (for the middle class) merit seats, in good colleges for technical courses, is at the root of the issue. Parents often feel that it is a wiser economic decision to spend a smaller sum of money on tuitions than to spend larger sums on capitation fees. With a large number of students aspiring for these limited merit seats, even a very small difference in the percentage of marks scored becomes critical. Tutorial institutions have therefore mushroomed everywhere to cater to this demand for scoring higher marks. The only focus of these institutions is to ensure that the students answer the questions almost by reflex. They are seldom concerned about clarifying the basic concepts in a subject.

Besides, to ensure and preserve the reputation of these coaching institutes, they only select “merited” students, adding yet another layer of pressure on students to score high marks on entrance tests to these institutions to even be admitted. The rat-race for marks at every juncture in a student’s path negates the true goal of education and the joy of learning. There is also another flip-side to these coaching classes. The students will feel burnt out and lose focus in later studies.

This rat-race is only exacerbated by the highly skewed distribution in marks, where a large number of students are concentrated in the 90 per cent and above marks category. This marks inflation is detrimental to a fair and credible evaluation of students. Also, it is worthwhile pausing to see whether scores such as 100 per cent even have much meaning. There are definitely exceptional students whose high scores correlate well with their analytical abilities. Having said that, let us look at the examination system as a whole.

Usually, exam questions are along the lines on which students have been trained. They are encouraged to write standard answers for which they have been coached. Often, any deviations from these answers are “punished” by awarding lower marks in mock tests. Being rewarded for answers that aren’t one’s own encourages plagiarism, often unknowingly, in one’s career later on. Furthermore, there is high emphasis on questions requiring only one or two sentence answers. This does not test the ability of students to think critically, cogently and logically, and hardly provides the evaluator enough information to judge students’ understanding.

Due to the very large number of students clumped into few educational boards and the need to evaluate all the answer scripts over a short span of time, a definite set pattern is provided to the evaluator to enable quick scoring. This puts students who answer the question correctly but with originality at a significant disadvantage. Besides, I fail to understand how a student can score 100 per cent in subjects such as languages, arts and humanities that are built on creativity and subjectivity! In fact, I believe that except in math and to some extent in science, where answers are fact-based and objective, it is impossible to judge the correctness of an answer quantitatively in many cases, considering their subjective nature. Thus, comparing students strictly on the basis of marks is fraught with pitfalls and dangers.

So, the question is, ‘Are we stuck with such a system for good?’. Not necessarily. The solution to this situation needs to be addressed on two fronts. Firstly, we should recognise that the number of reputed educational institutions is too few to accommodate all the merited students and this has led to the rat-race for high marks. Hence, starting new educational establishments, both public and private, is the need of the hour. However, this can only be a long term goal as building institutions takes time. But, unless a beginning is made now, we will face even more severe problems in the future.

The second part of the solution involves systemic changes that can be successfully implemented by being bold and resolute. Since the number of students taking exams in a given board is impossibly large, it is best to break one large board into smaller boards. These new boards must enjoy some degree of autonomy over both syllabus and examination pattern, with close oversight over the functioning of these boards. The pattern of questions should be altered to gauge the understanding and originality of the answers, and textbook answers should be strongly discouraged. Grades, instead of marks must be awarded to the students, so that students are not slotted on a fine-toothed marks comb.

This is particularly important, since an answer script evaluated by two different evaluators will not necessarily result in the same marks being awarded. While the letter grade awarded will depend on the marks scored, the marks themselves should not be disclosed to the students or the schools. The letter grades should be awarded on a normal grading curve with the average grade fixed at something like a ‘C’. The letter grade system will also do away with the unhealthy competition for gaining fractional marks advantage over each other, and the absurdity associated with colleges posting marks percentage cut-offs, where students with fractionally lower percentages are not admitted.

The change over from absolute marks to letter grades begs the question, ‘How do we select students for college admissions?’ The solution to this is to adopt a national college entrance test like the SAT or the American College Testing (ACT) exam. Such exams must be open to students throughout the year and must be administered online. Students must be allowed to repeat the exam multiple times over the year to improve their performance. The advantage of this system is, it will provide uniformity for comparing students across the whole country. Since the exams are not taken at the same time by all students, there is no psychological pressure on the student or the parents to advertise their achievements. There will also be less time-pressure on evaluators to score exams, allowing time for a more earnest evaluation of a student’s performance in the exam.

These exams can also be designed to differentiate merit at the top end, which is usually very difficult and not achieved by question papers that require standardised answers. Currently, such exams are conducted in STEM streams for highly competitive courses. The purpose of the common exams proposed here is to include students from STEM as well as non-STEM streams and rank-order them for all courses in higher education.

The national college entrance exam envisaged could be based on reasonably uniform syllabus and school text books across the country. This allows teachers to prepare students for the national exams in the course of curricular teaching. There will also be fair degree of uniformity in the coverage of topics, whether or not students will appear for the national test. It will also ease the burden on the student from preparing for different syllabi for different exams. The admissions to higher education courses could also be based on a weighted average of the course performance and the performance at the national test.

Indeed, the time for a critical look at our education and evaluation systems was years ago, and we are severely lagging behind in discussing and initiating reforms. The goal of an effective education system is not just to impart knowledge, but perhaps more crucially, to nurture creativity and critical thinking. Our examination system is the gate-keeper for the values of an education system, and must evaluate students not on their level of conformity, but instead on their understanding and originality.

I would go a step further and assert that a key responsibility of the examination system is also to reduce the inordinate psychological pressure that currently exists on students, teachers and parents alike. I urge those intimately part of the education system, the science and humanities academies and the pre-university education system to think back to the basics – what do we really want from our education system?

(S Ramasesha is Honorary Professor and INSA Senior Scientist, Solid State and Structural Chemistry Unit, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru)

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