The School Education Secretary Has A Lot To Answer For

The School Education Secretary Has A Lot To Answer For Students appearing for the Class XII CBSE exam in Indore (Arun Mondhe/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • He must come forward and explain all that has gone wrong under his leadership even as his terms ends

The term of Anil Swarup, School Education Secretary, Government of India, is drawing to a close. We wish him all the very best in his next undertaking. However, at this juncture, one needs to revisit the highlights of his inglorious term which saw an incessant flow of fiascos in the school examinations, assessments and entrance examinations conducted by the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE). It is also disconcerting that the CBSE, which is meant to be an autonomous body, is increasingly becoming an extended arm of the Union Human Resources Development Ministry (MHRD).

No Discussions On New Education Policy; No Data On Achievement Survey

With much fanfare, in February 2018, Swarup announced that the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) had conducted the largest National Achievement Survey (NAS) at the Class X level. This is a nationwide test to assess academic standards. One has not seen any public data or statistics from this assessment, well after over four months. It needs to be kept in mind that such surveys are conducted using taxpayer money, and it is bizarre that those conducting it did not find it worthwhile to release any detailed statistics into the public domain. There have been a few newspaper articles about some of the findings, but this is extremely sparse data. This kind of information needs to go directly to the public, instead of a few handpicked journalists.

Data was released for the NAS at the Class V and Class VIII levels. However, the analysis presented in the form of district- and state-wise report cards, was shoddy and did not offer any insight into how abilities differed by basic factors such as the examination board, which the school was affiliated to. A better route would have been to upload anonymised and bucketed data, without the school name (but including other details such as the board which the school was affiliated to, fee range and zip code among others). That way, the data would have benefitted from the eyeballs of statisticians and data analysts, who would have been able to glean out invaluable patterns and trends, in a manner which is perhaps too ambitious to expect from ill-equipped generalists employed as National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and HRD officers.

Most worrisome is that there has been no concrete discussion around the New Education Policy (NEP) after the first draft of the NEP was scrapped in 2016. For a country with precious little beyond human capital, one hopes to see a greater sense of urgency around the NEP.

The Entrance Exam Debacle: JEE-Mains And NEET (2018)

The CBSE management should have been taken to task when it emerged that several questions in the JEE Mains (2018) question paper were very similar to those of a mock test conducted by the Narayana coaching chain in 2016. It raises serious questions about the paper setting process of the board and the originality of the questions. The board reacted by filing a case against the whistleblower website which first made this startling revelation, but this claim has also been validated by others, including Narayana students, as is evident in this Quora thread. A Narayana spokesperson did explain that the questions were common and similar to those asked in a practice test conducted by their chain in 2016.

Another Narayana head, speaking to 360, called the incident “cheating” by the CBSE board which had lifted Narayana’s intellectual property. We don’t know what exactly happened, but the public deserves a swift and conclusive explanation or investigation into such issues. If the questions did match, one plausible explanation is that questions were picked up from a common source or a popular book. That in itself should be a red flag, indicating academically unsound practices within the board.

National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) was eventful, once again, with several errors in the Tamil translation of the question paper. The same was the case with the Bengali version of the paper.

This is an extreme case of academic injustice given the amount of preparation which goes into these examinations.

Dismal Handling Of CBSE’s Paper Leakage

The CBSE economics re-examination for Class XII was more of a face-saving exercise for the board. Well before the economics examination, the accountancy paper made headlines as it emerged that questions from the paper had circulated on social media, before the examination. CBSE was also aware of surreptitious attempts being made to gain illegitimate access to question papers and had warned examination centre-heads, to take precautions against the same, as early as 4 March.

While it is understandable that the possibility of a leak is not negligible in a country as large as ours, neither Swarup nor Anita Karwal, CBSE chairperson, were apologetic enough to offer the public clear insights into the origin of the leaked papers. Instead, Swarup interrupted and silenced a well respected educator, who was bold enough to broach the topic of the paper leaks at a recent conference in Kolkata. Till now, there has been no transparent explanation by the board, to inform the public about the findings from the investigations into the paper leaks. The dust has practically settled on the issue because we have almost forgotten the episode.

News 18 clearly showed their journalist standing outside a CBSE examination centre with printouts of a handwritten set of questions from the biology question paper (from her WhatsApp messages), before the examination even started. When the biology paper was over, it turned out that the questions matched with those which were in the journalist’s possession. The board was informed, but they refused to engage on the matter. The leak of the biology paper was never discussed. Cases of paper leaks and cheating need to be taken with utmost seriousness because it destroys the faith of young and honest students in the country’s institutions and systems.

Much Ado Over The Spiking Of Marks

Boards are trapped in a vicious spiral of inflating marks, largely because central universities such as Delhi University follow a bizarre admission process where 97 per cent in the Indian School Certificate Examinations (ICSE) board loses out to 98 per cent in Tamil Nadu board, but wins over 96 per cent in Uttar Pradesh board. It does not seem to appear irrational to any of those in power, that these are scores in different examinations, with different syllabi, and different standards of strictness in marking. Marksheets of Indian boards also fail at offering any insight into the relative standing of candidates. There is no indication of the percentile ranking of a student in the subjects for which he/she took the examination.

The specific issue with CBSE’s result is that not only do they inflate scores, but data also indicates that they also favour specific zones such as Delhi and Chennai, and selectively inflate their scores more than others. In addition, they grossly distort the relative ordering, by pushing up everyone within a range of five to 15 marks, to exactly the same score of 95 in various subjects. This creates a spike at the 95 level in CBSE histograms for various subjects because students who actually scored marks as different as 86, 87, 88 and 94 have all been bumped up to 95. These histograms are becoming old now, but for those new to this controversy, this is the kind of inexplicable score distribution observed in many CBSE subjects, the most common characteristic being the astounding spike at 9

A histogram that shows the standard deviation in Math scores
A histogram that shows the standard deviation in Math scores

Swarup presided over several meetings and discussions where he convinced several boards such as state boards to stop this artificial inflation of marks. The discussions were vague and lacked the level of statistical detail required in any deliberation over academic assessments. Many states such as Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka have indeed seen a drop rate in their pass percentage and scores, which indicates that they have made some attempt to deliver on their promise to stop inflating marks.

However, after all this, the CBSE itself has not delivered on its promise, in both 2017 and 2018. It has continued to tamper and falsify its scores, with the 95 spike still as prominent as ever. One cannot help wondering whether the fuss made about moderation was less of a systemic reform and primarily to get the state boards to reduce their scores, as there has been much hue and cry about students from southern state boards grabbing a disproportionate churn of coveted seats in Delhi University. It is passing extraordinary that after so much debate and discussion, the board, which functions right under the nose of the MHRD, has once again brazenly tampered with and manipulated its result, without as much as a comment from the School Secretary. This makes us wonder if there was any genuine concern about the academic consequences of grade inflation, or whether the brouhaha about spiking was primarily to get boards other than CBSE to stop inflating scores, to facilitate the smooth sailing of Delhi students into Delhi University.

ISCE has barely 10 per cent of its students scoring 90 and above in mathematics this year, while CBSE has 12.5 per cent of all its passed candidates scoring 95 or more. Similar trends are observed in physics and chemistry as well. These kind of variations penalise boards with rigorous standards of assessment, such as those of Maharashtra and West Bengal.

CBSE has again gone scot-free, without offering any insight into how their scores are transformed, despite strict instructions from a toothless MHRD to all boards, emphasising that they need to be transparent and should upload all details about how marks are changed, before releasing results.

One Set Of Rules For Delhi, Another For The Rest

What is also more serious is that CBSE follows one set of rules for Delhi students, and another set for the rest of the country. The histogram suggests that they inflate everyone’s marks, but clear attempts are made to push more Delhi/NCR zone students into the high scoring band above 90. Notice the different shapes of the histograms for Delhi students and non-Delhi students. The latter resembles a distorted bell curve, slightly ajar, whereas the former bears no resemblance to the kind of distribution one would expect for test scores from a public examination. Even last year, the Indian Express had covered how the English scores were rigged to favour Delhi zone. Half of all the 95s in English Core were from Delhi in the 2017 examination.

Observe this 2016 table accessed by the Times of India. In most subjects, Delhi zone students received moderation marks, which were slightly less than the rest of the country, but in English they were bumped up by as much as 12 marks, while the rest of the country received none at all. For most of the popular subject combinations, such as English, physics, chemistry, maths and computers/economics, this kind of an inflation scheme will ensure that a student of Delhi scores at least five marks higher than a student from another zone, submitting exactly the same quality of answer scripts. This of course was before Swarup took over, but the 2017 data revealed similar anomalies in the English marks.

A histogram that explains the standard deviation in English Core scores for Delhi students
A histogram that explains the standard deviation in English Core scores for Delhi students
A graph that presents the standard deviation for English Core marks for non-Delhi students
A graph that presents the standard deviation for English Core marks for non-Delhi students

I think we can all agree that the Delhi University admission process is flawed and unreasonable, but it is reprehensible to address one wrong with another wrong (arbitrary manipulation of marks), when the latter destroys whatever semblance of meritocracy is left in the Indian board exams.

Swarup has rightfully made much ado about India’s education mafia but in the absence of clear explanations and apologies about CBSE’s paper leaks and anomalous assessment, it is hard to distinguish his accomplishments from the contributions of those whom he flays.

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