Why CBSE Board Exams Should Be Cancelled Forever—And Be Replaced By Tougher, Subject-Specific Tests
Students in higher classes don’t hate studying for exams. They just hate studying the subjects they don’t like.
The board exam process can be replaced with a better system that is tougher but not burdensome.
On 14 April, as the Covid-19 cases were surging across the country, the Union government decided that it was better to cancel the Class X board exams conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). The risk wasn’t just worth it.
A call on Class XII board exams was tougher because it’s not so inconsequential in deciding the future of students. A large number of higher education institutions rely on marks obtained in these exams to give admissions. Even those institutes which conduct their own entrance tests give weightage to board exam marks.
Though the second wave has subsided significantly, we are still detecting more than a lakh cases daily because the virus hotspots have simply shifted from one region or state to another. Conducting a nation-wide exam is thus not prudent. Given this, the government finally announced scrapping of the exams for this year on 1 June.
Risking another wave of infections is too daunting a prospect for the government given lakhs of students would have to assemble over many days in exam centres for hours and there is real possibility of spread from there back to hometowns and households of these students as they go back.
Moreover, waiting further for a couple of months expecting cases to come down everywhere is banking too much on good luck given that it needs to happen throughout the country. There is always a possibility that we can be hit by another wave. Meanwhile, the students as well as parents will have to continue to live under uncertainty.
Of course, all this leads to delays in college admissions for which time is already running out. So, the government has asked CBSE to work out an alternative framework and the board has constituted a 13-member committee to come up with an objective criteria for assessment of Class XII students.
One is not sure if a truly objective criteria can be worked out that honestly evaluates learning outcomes of all the students throughout the country. In the absence of a standardised exam, the board will to go by the marks awarded by tests conducted at the tens of thousands of schools throughout the year. Since the schools were under lockdown for most part of the previous year, the integrity of online tests is already in question.
Additionally, on this aspect, it’s never a good idea to trust the schools whose primary goal is to outcompete others by showing exemplary results of their students in board exams. If CBSE evaluates students nationally based on the internal marks as reported by schools, we can be sure of crazy high marks inflation in this year’s final results.
Nonetheless, whatever criteria CBSE committee comes up with, it will be much inferior to a national exam. And if universities decide to award admissions based on that, heartbreaks and complaints are certain.
There is a decent chance that many hardworking and honest students are left out.
Unfortunately, the whole process could be interpreted as a sham bereft of any legitimacy and those who are celebrating the cancellation may not view it as such a good thing few months down the line. But there is no alternative at least this year. Both the central and state governments face Sophie’s choice.
While we can’t do much now, the preparations for 2022 should begin in earnest. For this, one proposes that focus should be on doing away with the national CBSE exams altogether which is an outdated system of assessing one’s abilities. These exams lost their utility long back and should now be replaced with a better system that is tougher but not burdensome.
This is perfectly in sync with the changes proposed by the National Education Policy (NEP) last year. It had proposed to give flexibility in choosing courses especially for students in Class IX to XII.
It’s not yet know how much flexibility students will get. For instance, there is no reason why a person interested in mathematics and physics should also take up chemistry if he doesn’t like it rather than say economics which may be more appealing to him.
Now, the success of such a flexible approach depends on the reforms in the examination system. College entrance setup will have to change. Tweaks are needed in the current competition exam (one size fits all) approach.
Rather than admitting students in the college first on the basis of overall marks in board exams with many subjects grouped together and then allowing students to pick the branch of studies, universities and colleges can start admitting candidates directly in specific branches based on subject scores. This alone will help ensure true flexibility to students in schools.
Now, if the government decides to do away with the CBSE board exams (which seems impossible as this is not even on the government’s consideration), the alternative to evaluate students at national level to get admissions in central universities can be via subject-specific 'olympiads'.
Good news is that the NEP has already advocated for a system like this, though in parallel to board exams. NEP states that the National Testing Agency will conduct “specialized common subject exams in the sciences, humanities, languages, arts, and vocational subjects" and "students will be able to choose the subjects for taking the test, and each university will be able to see each student’s individual subject portfolio and admit students into their programmes based on individual interests and talents.”
Further, it states that the “Public and private universities, including premier institutions like the IITs and NITs“ will be able to use the results of “Olympiads and competitions in various subjects across the country“ as part of the criteria for admissions into their undergraduate programmes.
Such national tests will help stream bright students in different fields and they can be picked by good institutions/colleges/even firms for specialised training or job.
Alternatively, weightage can be given to both — marks in these national-level exams for specific subjects as well as marks in the same subjects in board exams.
The flexibility in taking courses and exams is a very exciting feature of the policy and can actually improve a lot of things including radically transforming the way higher education institutions give admissions.
The University Grants Commission has already moved in this direction. Its concept note on ‘Blended Mode of Teaching and Learning’ proposes flexibility to students in colleges to pick teachers, timing of the courses, type of courses to study, mode of study (online, classroom or a combination of both) and giving exams on demand. This approach to "design your degree, pick from a number of teachers, timings that suit you to study, mode of teaching as per convenience and requirement, tailor exams" can certainly be extended to students in Class X onwards.
To sum up, it doesn’t matter if CBSE board exams are cancelled forever. Standardised specialised tests for individual subjects can easily replace the old system provided that higher education institutes also give admissions based on those scores.
In fact, even the states should also think of conducting state-level exams regularly, preferably for all classes. These can be optional and only those who want to take part in it and understand their standing can sit for these. To encourage participation, governments can announce prizes or scholarships for toppers like the National Test Search Examination does. This can be implemented by NTA also.
The flexibility to study subjects of interest and drop ones which feel cumbersome and boring will make studying a better experience for students. The exams can be tougher if the load is lighter. Students in higher classes don’t hate studying for exams. They just hate studying the subjects they don’t like.
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