Guess where these words are from: Examinations have “grown to extravagant dimensions, and their influence has been allowed to dominate the whole system of education in India, with the result that instruction is confined within the rigid framework of prescribed courses, that all forms of training which do not admit of being tested by written examinations are liable to be neglected.” Answer: From a report on education policy prepared by the government of George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India, in 1904. What about this one? “The system of examinations prevailing in our country has proved a curse to education”. Answer: The Congress’s Zakir Husain Committee report on Basic National Education, 1938. I found these damning indictments of board examinations in a powerful essay by Azim Premji University professor B.S. Rishikesh on why school board examinations must be scrapped permanently.
As he argues, the pandemic has exposed the pointlessness of these expensive ritual ordeals. We found that we could easily cancel Grade 10 board exams without any significant consequences. Grade 12 board exams are somewhat different—they perform some functions for which there are no immediate alternatives—but there is a case to eventually get rid of them too. Today, these examinations mostly serve the interests of education bureaucracies, the coaching industry, test-preparation publishers and unscrupulous entrepreneurs who try to make a quick buck by exploiting the hopes and insecurities of parents. To the extent that they have any useful role in education itself, there are cheaper and less harmful alternatives that can replace exams.
The case against Grade 10 examinations is clear. There was perhaps a time, 40 years ago, when formal schooling up to secondary school would have been adequate. Thus, the secondary school leaving certificate and equivalent qualifications acted as credentials signalling the completion of essential basic education. This is no longer the case. A young person anywhere in the world cannot expect lifelong employability without, at the very least, having 12 years of schooling. Indeed, science and mathematics are no longer optional for generations that have to deal with the complexities of life, work and citizenship in the Information Age.
In today’s world, Grade 10 is no different from Grade 5 or 7, in that it is merely another step in a 12-year journey. Therefore these students can be evaluated just as those in grades below them. Not only are board exams unnecessary at this level, but to the extent they signal that schooling is ‘complete’, they discourage students from studying further. We should immediately do away with secondary school board examinations.
While Grade 12 exams have limited utility from an educational perspective, they function as a gateway to higher studies, vocational education and employment. Also, while subjective assessments—as done in many Western countries—appear to be more suitable than examinations, there are a number of sociocultural and capacity-related prerequisites for them to work effectively. This calls for a more measured approach in transitioning away from the current system. As much as I favour jettisoning board examinations, I am sceptical about the political economy of subjective assessments, for there is no reason why schools will be able to avoid the favouritism, corruption and discrimination that are extant in the rest of our society. It is prudent to set a transition period of five or more years to reach a more desirable equilibrium, during which the school system can create the mindset and capacity required for it.
What does a better alternative look like? Students completing Grade 12 can be issued certificates of their educational performance, extra-curricular activities, sports and social service record by their own schools. Below this level, the Central Board of Secondary Education and other boards can offer optional standardized tests. These will be useful when students have to change boards.
As a student, I had to move across four boards in five cities, my parents concerned whether transfer certificates would be recognized. With increased national mobility, we should expect that the number of students who will shift cities and boards will grow. The availability of a standardized test will facilitate student mobility across the country. Schools can recognize these tests or conduct their own to grant admission.
At the Grade 12 level, instead of a single mandatory board examination, there can be optional tests on demand, taken if and when students need them. Universities should be free to determine what courses of study require such tests. Professional courses already have national entrance tests for which board exams are superfluous.
We have lost sight of the purpose of schooling: it is to equip future citizens with a good grasp of language, mathematics, the scientific method, humanities and civic values. It is ultimately about enabling them to exercise their capacity for reason and make good decisions. Many of these qualities are not examinable. Excising board exams from education has long been necessary. The pandemic has shown us that it can easily be done.