Scrap the exam

Class XII board exam is not indispensable. CBSE must put safety of students first, devise fair transition to higher education.

If the health and safety of lakhs of Class XII students is not to be endangered, the Central Board of School Education (CBSE) must do the right thing: It must scrap the Class XII examinations. By doing so, it will not, as is being feared, board up the path that leads to higher education. Instead, it will lead students out of an anxious limbo that has stretched for over a year, and push the education system to do what it should have done years ago: Find a way around the tyranny of standardised assessments and marks.

Between mid-April, when the CBSE decided to cancel the Class X board examinations, and now, the ferocity of the second Covid-19 wave has left the country reeling. The variants of the novel coronavirus in circulation are more transmissible, if not more lethal. To organise a nationwide examination of this scale, when neither a substantial section of teachers nor students has been inoculated against the virus, is to invite another public health disaster. The CBSE has offered to conduct a curtailed physical examination for a limited number of subjects, stretching for over 45 days or two months. The virus, however, is unlikely to respect such concessions. Even to conduct 90-minute tests, the imponderables are too many. Will it be possible to mobilise teachers and students while observing physical distancing norms? Will teachers and students in a centre be allowed to proceed with the examination if one student contracts the virus?

The CBSE is proceeding with the questionable assumption that this is a “make-or-break” board examination and the only metric to measure 15 years of schooling — and so, it must somehow, anyhow, be pulled off. The system of board exams is part of what is broken about Indian education. As the National Education Policy 2020 points out, “these exams do much harm, by replacing valuable time for learning with excessive exam preparation … and force students to learn a very narrow band of material … rather than allowing the flexibility and choice that will be so important in the education system of the future”. It is possible to carry out a consolidated assessment of Class XII students without subjecting them to a high-pressure examination in the middle of a pandemic — for instance, their scores in previous examinations could be used to arrive at a final result. Even if it is an imperfect assessment, is it worse than a system of bloated marks and unreasonable cut-offs? Indeed, once the board has certified that a student has completed her schooling with a certain degree of competence, it should be up to the universities and colleges to devise their own criteria — from entrance tests to interviews — to determine if a student is qualified for higher education. For admission to medical, engineering and law colleges, students have to sit for entrance tests every year. Instead of mechanically eliminating and excluding students, other higher educational institutions must also come up with better ways of engaging with college applications. At the same time, it is of utmost urgency that students and teachers be vaccinated on priority. In these extraordinarily difficult circumstances, the CBSE must embrace the extraordinary solution.

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