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Let’s rethink need for board exams

Published : Jun 17, 2016, 12:08 am IST
Updated : Jun 17, 2016, 12:08 am IST

When will we ever learn We have done nothing to reduce the harm caused by public examinations year after year.

When will we ever learn We have done nothing to reduce the harm caused by public examinations year after year. The spate of exam-related student suicides that take place with alarming regularity and the psychological disorders that are associated with exam phobia are taking their toll. It is a fact that anxious and demanding parents play a significant role in contributing to this “harm” but ironically they also suffer from nervous breakdowns and some have to be hospitalised due to anxiety over their children’s performance in examinations which they equate with their future.

There is no point in giving statistics yet again — they are there for the asking. All over the world millions of youngsters either take their own lives or attempt to do so because of the fear of impending exams or exam results. Chilling suicide notes written by children have been published. These children are those who have felt they could not live up to their parents’ expectations and they just could not bear to disappoint them. One note merely said: “To save you looking for me I’m dead. I’ll probably be in a tree.” Curiously, this was written by a “model student”, an 18-year-old English girl who was concerned about her A-level English results. But though performance anxiety is universal, India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Our children are usually found hanging from ceiling fans.

There is also no point in retelling the oft-repeated story of the joyless lives our high school students lead, specially in the two years’ run-up to the school-leaving examination. The student’s life is determined by ambitious parents, demanding school schedules, rigorous coaching at various centres, private tuition, peer pressure, dull textbooks, notes to be memorised and mechanical interaction with the computer. The need and drive to enrich one’s all-rounder profile is another part of the same story. The purpose of these frenzied activities with no let-up whatsoever — or else one’s future is jeopardised — is to get into a “good” college, take up a “useful” course that will in turn fetch a “good” job. The mantra is “persevere or perish”! And many students do perish in different ways when the pressure gets to them.

Every year, without fail, stories of exam-related suicides come pouring in and the usual reports, articles and interviews follow. Surveys are conducted, exam reforms are promised and experts meet to discuss them. Yet the pressure on students keeps increasing at a frightening pace. The cover story of a March 2005 issue of India Today was on the growing number of board examination-related suicides in our country. The title of the story was “Killer Exams: How to revamp the system”. The article indicates that the powers-that-be have over the years made the right noises from time to time. Onetime HRD minister Arjun Singh had said he was “depressed by the high levels of stress in the public examinations of Class 10 and Class 12 as well as joint entrance examinations”.

Then HRD additional secretary Sudeep Kumar Banerjee said: “We are looking to target next year’s examinations so that we can evolve a good system that tests a student, and not kill him.” Well, a whole decade later, we are still waiting for that “good system”.

It is not that attempts have not been made to reduce stress levels for students. Banning pre-board examinations, making the Class 10 board exam optional, a combination of internal and external evaluation, no pass-fail criteria, a no-detention policy till Class 8 and other strategies have been tried. But these have been piecemeal efforts that have not addressed the crux of the problem.

I was filled with embarrassment when BBC World Service interviewer James Menendez, questioned me last month in a Newshour programme about the number of students in India committing suicide over exam results, and the logic of an examination system where the eligibility criteria to take up certain subjects in colleges is 100 per cent. I hastened to explain to him the problem we have with sheer numbers that run into hundreds of thousands, and the need for some sort of screening. Also, that some colleges had their own way of picking students through interviews and aptitude tests. But Mr Menendez had done his homework. His next question was why students should have to spend money on extra coaching outside of school to earn places in universities and professional institutions. The school’s job was to give students a solid educational foundation and not to train them for any particular entrance exam, I answered. In any case, I believe that the highest-scoring students are not necessarily the best students or the best choices for a particular job.

Indeed, most employers do not look for high scores but for a completely different set of skills.

Curiosity, drive, the ability to work with others, emotional maturity and diligence are qualities that are valued more. Many of our educationists and policymakers recognise that our board examinations — even after the so-called reforms — are quite obsolete. You cannot assess a student through a single exam. Cyrus Vakil, chairman of the National Focus Group for Exam Reforms, remarked that the Indian school boards are inappropriate for 21st century needs as they do not identify problem-solvers; rather, they cater to the lowest common denominator.

Policymakers must have the courage to scrap compulsory board examinations. Schools must stick to their task of imparting a sound educational foundation and developing well-rounded students. Entrance tests should be genuine aptitude tests that do not require special coaching or preparation. Parents must accept their children as they are and not drive them to fit into a mould of their own making.

Most urgently, the concept of success must be redefined if we want our young to live — and thrive.

The writer is a veteran school educator based in Kolkata