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  • Writer's pictureSrijan Pal Singh

Board Examinations: Where Grade Inflation Met Quality Deflation

Updated: May 30, 2020

“What is the best way to increase the length of the wheat bale?” asked the farmer.

“Work harder on your field and make it grow”, replied the merchant.

“I don’t want to work harder. Is there an easier way?”, inquired the farmer.

“Ah. Then, reduce the size of the scale with which you measure the bales”, chuckled the clever merchant. The story goes on. 

CBSE’s inflating results are not much different from this little story of the farmer and the merchant.

Of the 17.6 lakh (1.7 million) students who appeared for the Class X tests in 2019, a record 2.25 lakh scored 90% and above. As many as 57,256 of these, scored above 95%. This number of 90% and above doubled from the past year and this time 13 students lost just a single mark to stand at 499 out of 500.

 The 12th results were no different. 13 lakh (1.3 million) students appeared for it and almost 95,000 got over 90% and over 17,000 got above 95%.

If you belong to my generation, the one which went to school in the 1990s or earlier, getting 100 marks in languages and social studies was an unrealistic dream. Yet in 2019, almost 500 students were given full marks in both English and Hindi. In 2008, the number of students getting over 90% rose from about 1.5% of total candidates to about 7.5% in 2019, a five-fold jump in a little over a decade.  One wonders, have the bales grown or the scales shrunk?

Of course, the rising number of “toppers” was a matter of celebration for schools and board itself. Much of attention was also devoted to finding reasons and the “guilt” of these students for even losing that one mark. After the results, I got to meet parents who were unhappy because their child scored 3% or 4% less than 100%.

In a month from now, the second tsunami will hit these students – when, instead of being judged against a shrinking benchmark, they would be pitted against each other in the race for college admissions. That would be another story for another time. But the question which needs to be addressed here is –what is the reason and impact of this grade inflation in CBSE?

To be fair, grade inflation is not just a CBSE issue. CBSE is the most widely spread and gets more attention – but the increasing percentages are felt across all state boards. There is a competition amongst boards (and schools who subscribe to it) to have higher percentages so that their students can find better chances of admission in top colleges which are flatly based on 12th and 10th scores. In a competitive environment, parents use the yardstick of board scores to judge the quality of education.

The problem is this competition for better did not follow the hard path of upgrading teaching quality but took the easier route of deflating exam difficulty and being increasingly liberal and forgiving with grading.  Examinations were reduced to answering the most simplistic and direct questions than being tested for the ability to solve more complex problems. The result is that, despite all warnings against rote learning, school education today is even more reduced to the task of making students better at memorizing and recalling answers to simple questions. This can be called the Roboticization of Education.

And it comes at a huge price.

Students undergoing this treasure hunt of memory rarely are encouraged to apply any form of lateral thinking. “Lateral thinking” along with multi-dimensional problems are now beyond the horizon of easily scorable questions which boards are becoming used to asking and schools are becoming used to teaching. Easing down the paper to this level also meant there is hardly any question that is nearly unsolvable. One of the greatest skills to display in a time bound examination with reasonably complex problems is the ability to manage the minutes well to ensure they are invested in an optimal way across all the solutions. And despite that, one fails to address a few of those problems. These problems, attempted and failed to solve, may earn zero marks in the result but are far more significant lessons in life as a whole. They teach to manage a journey balancing success and absorbing failures even in a small three-hour examination.

The other problem is that this grade battle is a pyrrhian victory for any board. We are nearly arriving at a time when boards’ marks are already a perfect score for dozens of students. Eventually, with such topper heavy results, college admissions will be forced to forgo the current process of giving admissions based on any board marks at all – and to follow their own separate admission test process. That would only lead to higher cost of admission for students, affecting economically weaker sections and above all, making boards completely irrelevant.

The mark escalation has also brought about additional stress on the students to score higher and higher. Moreover, the training needed to speed through a relatively easier board questions is very different from the skills needed to handle the more complicated admission test questions such as those in medical and engineering entrance examinations. This doubling of stress has been well exploited with sprawling coaching which has started taking intake of students from as low at class 9 onwards for preparing them entrance exams. Again, this adds to the cost of education paid by the parents, and of course, put the economically disadvantaged students who cannot afford the coaching in a worse off position in entrance exams.

It would be unfair to merely find faults with the board for this grade inflation. The blame also lies with the parents who are admitting their children in schools purely based on the number of faces displayed with “above 95% marks” displayed proudly in school brochures. Academics are important, but academics alone do not complete the education of a young mind. When parents rank schools based on marks their students achieve, the school is bound to set a performance criterion for teachers based on the performance of their students in the examination. Thus, the whole system tilts in the direction of a race for the last point.

A few months ago, the famous Harvard Business Review came up with three qualities which will define the leaders of tomorrow – extroversion, compassion and emotional stability. These are the skills learned through promoting a culture of a collaborative effort, observation, thinking out-of-box and the ability to manage difficult problems and handle failures. CBSE and other boards seem to be aloof of this practical truth of the world which our children are inheriting – and the gap between what is taught and what is needed to be taught is only widening. Today, we are producing a barrage of “toppers” who are educated to live in a make-believe world where complexities are few and who will hit hard on a wall of reality the moment they will step outside their schooling system.

In conclusion, let me finish the farmer and merchant story we started with.

“What is the best way to increase the length of the wheat bale?” asked the farmer.

“Work harder on your field and make it grow”, replied the merchant.

“I don’t want to work harder. Is there an easier way?”, inquired the farmer.

“Ah. Then, reduce the size of the scale with which you measure the bales”, chuckled the clever merchant.

The story goes on….

The farmer was happy. He chuckled and asked, “So, if I reduce the scale to half will you pay me double”

The merchant frowned, “Oh silly man! Don’t you know? We pay for the weight of wheat and not length of the bale.”

Are we focussing on actually increasing the weight of our education, which matters; or merely finding ways to make the bale look longer by manipulating the scales? Time to re-examine.

This article got published in India Today on 4 June 2019.

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