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Draft Education Policy Fails to Effectively Address Rote Learning & Farcical Examinations Plaguing Indian School System

There is urgent need of ending marks "moderation" by different boards, inter-board co-operation and overhauling the National Curriculum Framework.

Even as we continue nurturing delusions of grandeur about being the greatest knowledge society ever, our educational culture remains steeped in traditional authoritarian norms. It is more important to follow prescribed norms and be content with “your place” in society rather than ask “inconvenient” questions. The teacher imparts “knowledge”, the student receives it respectfully and imbibes it, usually unquestioningly. We refer to this more popularly as rote learning.

Rote learning is terrible because it encourages us to memorise and prevents analytical thinking. Yet it remains the dominant mode of learning in our schools. Learning history becomes memorising a chronology of dates; Literary appreciation consists of regurgitating passages from a guide book; in the sciences, concepts and principles are taught, but they get drowned in a heap of practice problems whose main aim is to develop an ability to do “pattern recognition”. 

The Draft New Education Policy (2018) (DNEP) wants to get rid of rote learning through a series of policy recommendations that are mere pious statements of intent. And it wants to achieve this goal without asking what sustains rote learning in our schools. If we cannot answer how rote learning is so deeply embedded, then we cannot suggest how to get rid of it.

Grafted on to a basic authoritarian ethos in schools, rote learning is sustained by a drastic shortage of teachers in general, and good ones in particular. A single teacher can lecture hundreds of students, but it takes many teachers to have interactive sessions with students. Fewer teachers rule out the possibility of giving attention to specific groups of children or to individuals, not just while teaching but more so during performance assessment. 

Quick, “kunji”-based (answer key), large-scale “mechanised” evaluations are therefore widely practised. We can see how this ends up looking in the board examinations. Question papers are typically dominated by multiple-choice and short answer questions. Even for the long-answer questions, marks are allotted based on keywords and not on the composition, coherence or flow of the arguments. The more qualitative subjects are also handled similarly. So in subjects like English Literature, Hindi, Biology and Psychology too, students get 100/100. The focus of all teaching, therefore, revolves around how to crack these examinations, and rote learning thrives. 

Next, this whole education style dovetails very well with the dominant student aim to score the highest marks. Schools nurture this culture, and it finds an ultimate expression in board examinations where every mark matters for admission to coveted higher education institutions. The obsession with marks is everywhere; in fact, it seems to be the only concern. The frenzy of producing perfect students through board examinations continues unabated. If we thought that the CBSE was producing so much goodness in the form of scores like 499/500, the ISC examination went a step ahead to give that one mark to student toppers to achieve scores of 500/500. Many state boards have followed suit. The fraction of students scoring above 90 per cent and 95 per cent have shot up. Most of these achievements are a result of students relying heavily on memorising material and focusing on question banks, often with the help of coaching. It is these abilities that are being rewarded with such high marks. The most sorrowful consequence here is that we are penalising those who may actually be creative and capable of original thinking. It is bizarre that we celebrate this frenzy when we should be rueing the fact that the rat race for marks has enslaved pedagogy.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The DNEP seems to sidetrack these issues with a deluge of impressive words. How does a school education that wants students to become creative and have analytical, questioning minds, negotiate hierarchies derived from traditions, especially caste and gender? A lack of teachers, especially those capable of practising pedagogies opposite to rote teaching-learning, takes decades to overcome and that too only if there is sincerity in recruiting and training teachers in these decades. The draft policy says, “Teachers will prepare their own quizzes, examinations, and portfolio assessments in this spirit to track students’ progress and revise personalised lesson plans accordingly for each student as needed.” This seems like a prescription that affluent schools in America and India already follow. These are impossible to implement in most other schools.

Also read: Govt Revises Draft Education Policy, Drops Suggestion of Mandatory Teaching of Hindi

The policy also says, “Board Examinations must also be made “easier”, in the sense that they test primarily core capacities rather than months of coaching and memorisation; any student who has been going to and making a basic effort in a school class should be able to pass the corresponding subject Board Examination without much additional effort.” How much easier can things get? If coaching is still required, it is because the schools do not do enough. The point, for a student, is not to “pass” the board examinations but to maximise their score. As long as marks remain the key for admission to higher education institutions, this will not change. 

The DNEP proposes to fix this situation by transferring the admissions task to country-wide tests, patterned on the American Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs). These will, it is hoped, eliminate the hundreds of admission tests that so many institutions hold. That may or may not happen by itself but what is likely to happen is that coaching centres will exploit these proposed tests as yet another lucrative market like they are doing for JEE and NEET.  

A solution that of considering the scores obtained in the admission tests (or, SATs in the proposed case) along with board examination scores was tried for admission into government engineering institutions (other than the IITs) a few years ago but it ran into the insurmountable barrier of comparing (normalising) marks across different boards. I have covered this story in great detail here and here

The DNEP does not address this significant problem of inter-board issues, which arises from the existence of multiple central and state examination boards/councils. Education is on the concurrent list, which means that the central, as well as state governments, can run their own systems. Each board has its own syllabus, a specific style of question papers — different mixes of short and long answers, numericals, descriptive questions, etc., and therefore different grading rubrics. This results in each board having different marks distributions (e.g. fraction of students having scored between 95 and 100), averages, highest, lowest marks etc. How does one compare students across boards? This is important at the time of admission into higher education institutions.

This problem needs the application of statistics in a sensible manner. Instead, what have the boards been doing? Many of them have muddied everything by attempting to be the “coolest” board. They have been inflating the actual marks that students obtain, through a mysterious “moderation” process, for many years now. Officially, this is a procedure where the variation in the marking of a given question by different examiners and, more importantly, the variation in the level of difficulty across different question papers, is sought to be “normalised”. How it is actually carried out in practice is “too confidential”, as stated in answer to an RTI query. We only get to see the end product — the declared marks. Moderation has made some numbers vanish. For example, from among the lakhs of candidates who appeared in, say, the math paper, no one got 82 or 83 or 86 — a statistical impossibility; they seem to have been converted to something else, most likely 95, generating a spike, i.e., lots of students getting 95 marks. 

Education loans
Representational image (Photo: Facebook)

Every year, media reports have been highlighting how weird this process is (1, 2, 3, 4). Anecdotal evidence suggests that moderation is probably carried out by most boards “manually,” i.e. based on the “feel” of a committee of people, very likely without any rigorous data analysis. And all of it is resulting in inflating raw marks. Such wonderful scores perhaps also bring some satisfaction to the government, that we are a nation of geniuses notwithstanding what PISA results or ASER reports say every year. Moderation is probably a generous descriptor of what should more accurately be described as marks tampering.

Also read: 13-Point Roster May Be a Beginning of The End of Reservation

This scenario has resulted in vicious competition between different boards and is fuelling more grade inflation every year. Many state boards are at a disadvantage in that their scores are usually lesser than the central boards, while some southern boards seem to trounce everyone else. In any case, the admission cutoffs hover in the high-nineties. And of course, no one cares who is getting admission — the student who scored 95 raw marks or the one who got 95 because it was “moderated” from, say, 82. There is no end to this mayhem because no one is willing to stop first!

The DNEP is conspicuously silent on any form of inter-board co-operation. We cannot just subsume all examination boards into one overarching centralised structure. DNEP pretends that its “recommendations” simply cover all the boards.

The draft policy talks of a modular examination structure where students can appear for a paper “whenever they are ready”, and up to two times “to eliminate ‘high stakes’ aspect”. “Eventually, when computerised adaptive testing becomes widely available, multiple attempts for Board Examinations could be allowed.” Our boards just about manage with the current “fixed” schedule, with all the vagaries of paper leakages, delayed results, improper evaluations and reevaluations. Given that we have erratic electricity supply and poor internet availability in so many parts of the country, this seems like a bad fantasy.

So, what can be done to “change” the system, without waiting for “new” policies?

The first attack should be on the examination and grading patterns. A genuine rejuvenation of the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) is needed. This will make syllabi across different boards have a universal backbone. A national-level task force should prepare teaching manuals that can get rid of the pernicious multiple-choice questions and keyword-based evaluation. There is plenty of potential material available in our own NCERT textbooks, as well as in classic foreign textbooks. We should learn gracefully from international boards as well as from the European and American systems. 

The current trend of very high scores must be broken as it wreaks havoc on student life. This system creates a false sense of perfection and overconfidence that afflicts the high scorers. It is teachers and principals themselves who say that these high scores do not reflect greater learning. In fact, some even suggest that high scores may actually indicate poor understanding because all the preparation focus would have been on cramming and “cracking” the examination. This entire hero-worship of board “successes” is the biggest promoter of rote learning. It is therefore not surprising to discover that even inside elite institutions like the IITs, many students — some of them, high board scorers — have weak fundamentals. And if coaching is supposed to have cured this, it seems to have done so for a small number of students. Only a tiny minority of high-scoring students emerge from this mess with clear concepts and a passion for something. Usually, it is an enlightened teacher or the atmosphere at home that contributes to such students rising beyond the call of rote learning. 

On the flip side is the misery that strikes everyone who is not considered a high scorer. Students even with 95 per cent marks consider themselves as failures in comparison to those who scored higher — and there are so many! This self-assessment gets “confirmed” when they find that they will miss out on gaining admission to many good colleges. Depression, driven by a sense of low self-esteem, is the most common outcome. The social media addiction in this age group amplifies these effects through compulsive vanity traps and odious comparisons with peers. Student suicide rates have shot through the roof.

Bihar government school
Representational image

The second initiative should be to instil into boards that they are not a law unto themselves. Their functioning should be bound by a code of conduct that is universally agreed upon. In this sense, coordination among these boards is essential. Currently, there exists only a voluntary association of school examination boards, the Council of Boards of School Education in India (COBSE) and its meetings are called rarely by the HRD ministry. More statutory status is needed for such a council so that some of its decisions are binding on the different boards. In the longer run, such a national inter-board council should sustain sensible evaluation patterns and marking schemes across all board examinations. The formation of such a council should be representative and not just filled with board administrators. It must be dominated by teachers and educationists, spread across regions and subjects. It must have statisticians, data experts and teachers from higher education institutions. 

Such a body is necessary to “enforce” accountability. Here is a list of things they must circumscribe:

First, the council must legally restrict modification of raw marks to very few situations. Moderation must go. Marks should be changed for “normalisation” only through statistical techniques approved by the inter-board council. Multiple question papers should be done away with because they create an artificial requirement for “equating” the outcomes necessitating the use of statistical procedures. Raw marks must be treated as sacrosanct and “normalised” only as a last resort, up to a few marks only.

Second, inter-board comparisons should be made only on the basis of statistical procedures approved by the inter-board council. Using percentiles, which seem to be the favourite method of many academic administrators, are simplistic — the top five per cent across different boards are not the “same” in any sense, and neither are their marks distributions comparable. In the current scenario, percentiles are largely useless and only serve to create the illusion of fair comparisons. One higher education institution has added bonus marks — given for special achievements – to a percentile, for creating admission merit lists! This is a statistical absurdity, and the matter has been taken to court; it is also a topic of public ridicule.

Third, is the adoption of letter grades. This will take the edge off precise numbers, and therefore ridiculous blunt comparisons between insignificantly different numbers. The actual marks should not be revealed at all. CBSE started awarding letter grades in the class 10 examinations in 2009-10. However, they also declared the marks a student obtained, thus defeating the objective of the letter grading system. Subsequently, much confusion was created by CBSE because it started using absolute and relative ways of doing this. These two methods produce very different letter grades. Combined with the problems created by marks inflation and moderation, there is just more confusion all around. The council should settle on a universal letter grading scheme to be followed by all boards.

Fourth, for the sake of transparency, all marks distributions in different subjects as well as overall, should be released publicly, by all boards. There is no secrecy in this. The nature of the distribution tells us many stories about fairness and equity. It will also reveal which boards have been indulging in “unfair” practices.

Representational image

All of this will make the board marks more authentic — as a measure of actual student learning as well as for the purpose of admission in higher education institutions. Currently, these marks are useless for any kind of admissions given their competitive inflation by various examination boards. Even though no fair comparison is possible across boards, it is done every year shamelessly. The marks inflation is not just about the highest values; a huge number of people are crammed into the top bands. So now, merit lists are made by distinguishing between 96.7 and 96.8 which statistically are not different at all, even while “moderation” can add five or ten or 15 marks to the raw scores. We currently have a proper potpourri of nonsensical marks.

While these measures will take away some of the psychological stress derived from odious comparisons (no marks, only letter grades), bring in a sense of fair play (no moderation, use of only validated, scientific statistics), and so on, the larger question of student anxiety and stress will not go away. Neither will the basic fact of competition by many for far fewer seats. 

Student angst, post the board examination results, is usually met by inane counselling through trivial advice, after the “debacle” — follow your passions, be yourself, believe in yourself, and other such clichéd phrases. It is pointless telling depressed students not to compare themselves with others when every parent, aunt, uncle, friend, cousin, a neighbour does just that. There is the well-intentioned talk of how schools should teach life-skills, develop compassion, kindness and a sense of community in students. But why would a school do any such thing when the larger society is cruelly competitive, and schools are expected to produce go-getters and grade-chasers?

Even sensible counselling — “board exams results are not the end of the world; there are other things one can try” — should have been drummed into students throughout schooling, when students were stressing inside the classroom. Much of this advice at the end of schooling years comes across as empty rhetoric and impractical. If it were so easy to earn a livelihood as a dancer or an artist, a lot of people would have done that already. Much of this rhetoric flows from people who have the social and financial privilege and can access networks that can launch these alternative careers. The desperation to do well as a means to financial liberation for students from not so well-off families is real. Ultra-high grades achieved by the socially privileged only serve to accentuate social divides as well as exacerbate a sense of bleakness felt by the less privileged. 

Also read: Radical Democratic Education: Lessons From The Past, Hopes For The Future

If we must counsel students to look beyond engineering and medicine (and now, law), we must give them advice based on the data that makes up the job-employment-economic scenario. This seems like a very difficult thing to do at the school level when our own state agencies have such a poor record of data collection and analysis, and when institutions of higher learning themselves do not know where the jobs are. 

Prof Krishna Kumar had rightly argued that only superficial attention is paid to education by the “political class”. It would possibly have some impact on policymakers if the media kept these serious issues in permanent public focus. I am sure that media platforms can find some time and space to do this by eschewing their obsessive coverage of toppers, their parents and the irrational, post-results frenzy that dishes out drivel like “My success is due to hard work”, “I studied 20 hours every day” and the clincher, “I owe everything to my parents”.

Scaling up educational opportunities is really a hard problem. Any feasible solution requires huge investments and sensible planning. But more than that it needs a great deal of political commitment.

Anurag Mehra is a Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Centre for Policy Studies in IIT, Bombay.

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