An Indifferent System Can't See that Students Don't Want to Be 'Board Exam Warriors'

Our learning theories inform us that even a small distraction or worry markedly hampers a student's performance. Then what is the purpose of all this?

Class 12 students are facing extreme levels of anxiety, stress and prolonged uncertainty but institutions that need to care seem to be strangely indifferent.

Confessing to a TV anchor one student recently said that they watch with bated breath as meetings, meetings, and more meetings are held but no decisions taken. It leaves them heartbroken, as the ‘mann ki baat‘ of lakhs pleading for the cancellation of the Board examination goes unheeded.

Another student mentioned the petition to the Chief Justice of India and wondered why these meetings were virtual but took decisions that endangered students, treating them like ‘canon fodder’ in the COVID-19 battlefield. Indeed, one is struck at the insensitive obduracy of the ‘system’ and its Board exam warriors, with little consultation with knowledgeable public health experts, discerning scientists and caring educators.

A major ministerial meeting of state education ministers and education secretaries on May 23, focused on the conduct of the examination through two format options – the existing three-hour long exam or a shorter one of 1.5 hour duration. Statements were made on the pitfalls of promotion without reliable assessment, and the importance of the Board examinations in students’ lives and careers, as the ‘cutting edge’. However, these only continue to keep students on edge, as the ravaging pandemic wreaks further devastation, in uncharted territories. 

There seems little learning from the repercussions of mega events involving lakhs of people, and no empathy for their anxieties, uncertainties, anger and grief. “Where does all the grief go?” attempts to humanise the numbing numbers, of the deceased 1621 teachers on poll duty at the Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections, while the administration is in denial and quibbles over when exactly ‘death on duty’ gets counted. 

Schoolgirls make their way to their school through a vegetable field early morning in New Delhi December 11, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

In March even as the second wave was surging, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had insisted on holding the Boards exams for Class 10 and 12, with war-ready bravado, preparing to arm the examination centres with appropriate COVID-19 protocols.

Were the organisers unmindful of how millions travelled long distances in public transport to reach the often poorly ventilated ‘sanitised’ exam halls? The higher transmissibility of the virus was evident, but that did not dampen the celebratory spirit of mega gatherings, extended elections, massive rallies, and collective ablutions at the Kumbh mela.

When  the pleas got louder, the Class 10 Board exams were cancelled but not the Class 12. Were those students immune to the virus? Science had shown that children carried the same viral load as adults and even if not as susceptible to severe illness, were equally efficient as transmitters. Moreover this time, the major concern was about their vulnerability of not having been vaccinated, as most vaccines had not yet been tested on children, for efficacy and safety. 

The announcement to go ahead with the Class 12 Board examination was made in mid April, when the official numbers were at 2,50,000 new COVID-19 cases a day. The shape of the graph, rising breathlessly, showed that by April end it would cross 4,00,000 daily cases a day, which it did. Yet undeterred, the CBSE had then said that after a review in May the schedule for the Class 12 examination would be announced by June 1, to commence at two weeks notice. 

Keeping in mind the state of the pandemic, the dismal health infrastructure outside of big cities, only 3% of the population fully vaccinated, a sluggish rate of vaccination and an acute vaccine shortage, the two options put forth on May 23 for the conduct of the Class 12 CBSE examination give a disconcerting glimpse on how it views learners, subjects and the assessment of learning. 

The first major decision which raises several unanswered questions relates to its proposal to examine only 20 subjects which are being termed as ‘major’ from among a host of over a hundred and seventy diverse subjects it offers within three broad groups – Academic (Group A), Languages (Group L) or Skill (Groups S).

The marks for the other ‘non-major’ subjects will now be assigned from the examination marks of the major subjects and the internal assessment, if any. There seems to be no rationale for such random assignment. How can marks attained in, say, Physics be assigned to Legal Studies, Graphics or even Kuchipudi, each of which falls in the Academic (Group A) list.

It is also not specified on what basis some subjects are classified as ‘major’ and for what reason; some websites have listed 20 subjects, though the CBSE site does not yet do so. It is said that a student will be marked on four major subjects – one language and three electives. For the assessment of students who have chosen subjects other than the 20 ‘majors’, school principals too do not have clear answers.

Marching band practice at a Mumbai school. Photo: David Brossard/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Similarly, for students who have chosen all three electives from the Skill Group it is not clear to schools or students how they would be examined, what subject would be considered to be their ‘major’ and how the marks of the other subjects would be inferred from it.  

The second decision relates to the duration and format of the examination paper which provides two options. Option 1 is the “existing format” of the three hour duration examination held at designated centres.

From reports of the last meeting, the Ministry of Education is not inclined to the longer option as it would require a window of at least three months, plus another month or two for the subsequent compartment exam.

The shorter Option 2 is being recommended, with an exam of 1.5 hour duration, and a truncated paper format having only objective and short answer type questions. This is expected to take 45 days, with students sitting in their own schools as self-centres. This option appears to be one of convenience to the organisers,  without much justification – either on its public health assumption that sitting in the centre for half the duration will be safe, or for its efficacy in assessing students’ learning.

On the contrary, most objective or short answer type questions are framed to elicit simple recall of memorised information, with no opportunity to assess creative thinking or deeper understanding. The sample question papers (2020-21) currently on the CBSE site provide evidence of this, in the examples below, from Political Science and Physics. 

Also read: Worried By Rising COVID Cases, Students Use Memes to Seek Postponement of CBSE Exams

Amusingly, the political science sample questions are naive, rather shoddily partisan and not quite ‘objective’, for all the questions about the Congress allude only to its problems, while those on the ruling dispensation highlight its claimed achievements. Indeed, the format of choosing what is taken to be the ‘right’ canonical answer, among the often simplistic or problematic options, tends to limit and even distort learning. 

Political Science:

In the decade of 1960’s, the Congress Party under the leadership of Indira Gandhi was affected by:

a) Violence; b) Defection; c) Internal conflicts; d) Censorship

Globalisation leads to each culture becoming ___

a) More Different; b) More Transparent; c) More Distinctive; d) More Different and Distinctive

Which factors contributed to Pakistan’s failure in building a stable democracy?

a) Dominance of the Military; b) Dominance of the clergy; c) Dominance of the landowning aristocracy, d) All of the above

Under which plan the organisation for European Economic Cooperation was established?

a) Maastricht Plan;  b) Marshall Plan;  c) American Plan;  d) Any other Plan

With its pre-intended goal ____ the NDA II government started several socio-economic welfare schemes to make development accessible to the masses.

a) Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan; b) Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan; c) Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas; d) Garibi Hatao

________ Policy has been adopted by NITI Aayog.

a) Make in India; b) Made in India; c) Start-up India; d) Ayushman Bharat

What was the impact of the Emergency on newspapers and magazines? 

Explain the role played by Syndicates in the Congress Party.


Name the physical quantity having unit J/T.

An alternating current from a source is given by i=10sin314t. What is the effective value of current and frequency of source?

In decay of free neutron, name the elementary particle emitted along with proton and electron in nuclear reaction.

In an opinion piece in the Indian Express “A Test of Will” the Union education minister reiterates the government’s determination to conduct the Class 12 Board examination, which he says is the first level of critical evaluation “that decides the categorisation of merit, career choices and pursuance of higher academic goals”.

Also read: CBSE’s Deletion of Chapters on Ecology, Evolution During Pandemic ‘Ironic,’ Say Biologists

Notwithstanding the ‘tyranny of merit’, as elaborated by Michael Sandel, and the problematic role of these examinations in sorting students, one wonders how the nature and quality of the objective type questions above can serve the purpose of critical assessment for higher academic goals. More pertinently, is it really worth going ahead with this massive operation at such risk, adding to the students’ anxieties  during this traumatic period.

Our learning theories inform us that even a small distraction or worry markedly hampers a student’s performance. Then what is the purpose of all this?

Meanwhile, harried students anxiously await an order on May 31 in response to their petition filed in the Supreme Court for the cancellation of the Class 12 examination. But as an experienced school principal indicates, the pressure to hold something like an exam is very high; it boils down to its raison d’etre, where ultimately the Board has to mind its business, having extracted substantial fees from students and schools during these pandemic years. 

Anita Rampal taught in the Faculty of Education, Delhi University.