Posted by: Vikram | September 12, 2009

Exams do not make societies equal.

The reforms made to the CBSE Class 10 board exams by the Union Education Ministry, have predictably raised the hackles of many. Among the various concerns raised has been one of equality. The claim is that the class 10 and indeed other state and national level exams are ‘equalizers’, they level the playing field for the exam takers, whether they are Mumbai city slickers who run over labourers after getting drunk on ‘New Year’s Day’, or the children of those poor labourers who slave away in the teacher-less schools of UP.

Well, what are the facts ? Indeed, the vast majority of the children who take these exams are poor or lower-middle class, many are first generation learners. And some of the poor do indeed have great success in these exams, but most dont. The combination of poor schools and the extra edge the rich and middle class kids have due to tuitions and coaching classes, eschew the chances of the average poor kid to succeed1 in these exams. And it shows as one goes higher in India’s education pyramid, very few of India’s college-graduates are from poor backgrounds. Here in grad school in America, I have only met one student from a lower middle class family, among the fifty or so grad students I have met from India.

I dont think that the change in the exam system will make the society any more ‘egalitarian’, and indeed no exam can. To address the problem of social inequality, the behaviour of Indians has to be changed. To achieve this equality, among other things, the content of the education has to be changed (towards which a start has been made), the mode of examination makes little difference. I can see the attractiveness of a one shot solution saying, hey so what if our society mutilates self-respect, anyone can take the exam right ? But exams are meant to assess the students and check the health of the school system not to bring about social change.

The Union education minister is right when he says that schools and education should be about learning not about judging the cutoff2 for who is ‘fit’ to do engineering and medicine. The truth is that the education meted out in most Indian schools is of little use to the majority other than learning to read and write3. Contrary to what many in the middle class think, not every child wants to or has to become an engineer. Most kids drop out (or are forced to drop out) after 10th or 12th standard, and their ‘education’ right now provides them with little skills for life or career. And, removing an exam centric evaluation system is the first of many, many steps needed to make education meaningful and valuable.

As Kapil Sibal put it,

Please rid me of this awful load,
Preparing for the class 10 boards,
My thirsty mind craves to create
Not have exams decide my fate

My wondrous eyes yearn to explore
Much beyond my classroom door
My dreams should not be cut to size,
Because I hate to memorize

If you test me for brains and guile
Dont have to look at percentiles
Marks encourage one upmanship
A free ride on an ego trip

With textbooks I should start to surf
Inquiringly look for new turf
Walk away from the trodden path
And not invite my teachers path

Solving a sum will not find
Real Answers to a questioning mind
Create the space for me to learn
Let learning be a lot of fun

1: Which usually means get ranked as high as possible.
2: You know sometimes the words we use can say so much about us and our society.
3: That they even do that, many will contest.

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Responses

  1. Vikram, How can be all students excellent and equal through this educational system ? Its sad but true fact. The difference in school level depending on the fee structure takes the oppurtunity of competition on the basis merit out of question. There is no equal ground at all. Hence, the removal of exam at 10th level ensures basic nourishment of talent without any pressure to succeed

    CBSE has done it and now I hope other boards will follow it. Education is the only oppurtunity in India which allows some one to raise their standard of life. Those who have raised the hackles on Sibal are those already benifitted from this education system. I am in the support of much awaited reform and fully stands with you that ‘Exams do not make societies equal’. A take on this issue is–

    http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/4979906.cms?flstry=1

    • Yes, yayaver, education can be used by the individual to rise in society, but exams cannot ensure ‘equalization’, and in any case this is not their job. Thanks for the article.

  2. Well written vikram. I too feel that taking out the board exam out of the equation will make studies more fun and less about getting more than 90% marks or I am screwed feeling.

  3. In my opinion,Sibbal is on the right track.At least he is trying.

  4. Very perceptive post Vikram; I do think we need to re-think our education strategies since they are clearly not serving the majority of the population very well.

    Still, as Indians, we do seem to have an almost pathological desire for ranking people ordinally in one manner or another, usually some dubious way to determine ‘merit’.

  5. @ Abhishek and Conrad: Thanks. Yes, we have a penchant for ranks and cutoffs, which leaves with a dangerously imbalanced education system.

    @ Chowla saab: It’s not just Sibal. These reforms are the result of almost 20 years of campaigning by various groups.

  6. Like someone says, atleast Mr Sibal is making a beginning. I hope he shifts his attention to the quality of education. Schools should take responsiblity of imparting good education. Our syllabi needs a thorough makeover. And thought should be given to extra-curricular activities too. Maybe the teachers need an exam each year. It is time they realise they have an important role to play in shaping society.

    • Welcome Radha. I agree, our syllabus needs great improvements. It also needs to be decentralized and let teachers have more say in what they are teaching. About the ‘extra curricular’ activities, we must actually let children take up art classes, classical/modern music classes, sports as classes.

  7. I don’t know how much this is going to help the students. The pressure to perform is IMO mainly restricted to the middle classes. Infact I’d be happier if the poor give more importance to education. They have to face the music anyway when they reach their twelfth standard. All elite educational institutes of higher learning select students based on marks and ranks, so the mad rush for seats is going to be there when students finish their twelfth. Based on personal experience I’d say the pressure was negligble when I was in the tenth and it was only during the twelfth that we were forced to study for long hours.

    One more thing we need to remember is how govt. schools operates. Having been to many govt. schools myself I have come across students in their eight and ninth standards who can’t read and/or write. (I don’t know about the general situation in the rest of India but this is what I saw in TN). These are the students who don’t clear during the tenth exams. So what is the new system going to do?

    What we need is more focus on raising the quality of education in rural areas by providing compeptent teachers who can actually teach. This might bring cheer to middle class students but I feel the poor are going to be even more neglected by their teachers.

    • Rags, how can you be so sure that poor families dont pressurize their kids to study, I have a lot of anecdotal evidence/news reports that point to the contrary. And logically it doesnt make much sense to me that a family, that can barely make its ends meet will not push their children to study, when education remains the principal way of escaping poverty.

      I agree with you that improving the quality of education and teachers is the most important thing. But the point of this post was to argue against a common myth that is propagated and believed in by middle class India.

      • Vikram, if as you say poor children are being pressurized by their family to study what do you think is the purpose of mid-day meal schemes? The only reason India’s primary and secondary enrolment in schools are increasing is because of this scheme. I don’t have any evidence to support my claims but from what I have observed in govt.schools most of the parents send their children there mainly for the food, not because of some undying urge to see their children acquire knowledge. I’m not talking about the urban poor here who are mostly migrants and a motivated lot, but the rural poor many of whom do not value education.

        A family that can barely make its ends meet in a poor village will not send the child to school precisely for that reason. They’ll expect the kid to help out at the farm or as wage labourers to augment their income. Let us not forget most Indians are still predominantly engaged in agriculture. There’s a reason why India has the world’s largest child labour population in the world.

        As I see it this new scheme will not benefit the majority of school children and the quality of education is going to decrease even more, we are going to have even more children entering their eleventh without knowing to read or write.

      • The “poor people don’t send their kids to school because they want them to work” arguement has been pretty much debunked really since the PROBE and HRD reports of the 1990s. Almost all field researchers will tell you that this arguement is a myth. Of course it isn’t to say that there aren’t some parents like this but this does not account for anywhere near the majority.

        What one needs to do is reconcile this with why when the motivation to educate exists, so much child labour does as well – the answer for the rural population doesn’t lie in the fact that that rural people are somehow so stupid they don’t understand the value of education – they clearly do; pretty much every single Indian parent knows that the best chance for upward mobility is an English language school education for their kids and ask most parents from a lower middle class or working/farmer background what they want and they will tell you it is for their kids to either join a profession usually doctor/engineer or go into ‘service’ as a white collar private or public sector employee. The poor returns on manual labour means everyone knows that it is not a viable path to class mobility.

        The reason why so many parents don’t send their kids to school and still retain child labour, is because of the abysmal quality of schooling in rural areas especially; where it offers little and the prohibitive cost of private schooling for most.

  8. Dr. Palash Sen- Education is not just about doing away with the boards!
    http://www.iken.in/Jcsworld.aspx

  9. Conrad Barwa, do you mind directing me to the PROBE study and HRD reports?

  10. “The reason why so many parents don’t send their kids to school and still retain child labour, is because of the abysmal quality of schooling in rural areas especially; where it offers little and the prohibitive cost of private schooling for most.”

    Hmm.. And I wonder why this abysmal quality of education didn’t come in the way of students enrolling in more numbers in areas where mid-day meal schemes are present? They could have made more money if their parents had decided to send them to work..

  11. “Hmm.. And I wonder why this abysmal quality of education didn’t come in the way of students enrolling in more numbers in areas where mid-day meal schemes are present? They could have made more money if their parents had decided to send them to work..”

    Sorry but I don’t follow your reasoning? Why not enroll for a free meal? unskilled manual pay rates are laughably low, even when they are paid and not in kind. The rates for child labour, outside specific industries would be marginal for rural communities, unless it is for self-cultivator households, for landless housesholds, I would posit it would be marginally zero in terms of additional net income. In this case it makes sense to ‘enroll’ the kid for a free meal – I think you should remember that this just takes the kid out for part of the day in school. If you lived with rural and small town households you would know that most children do a lot of their work in the early morning and evening, at times when adults are resting, especially if they are girls.

  12. “The rates for child labour, outside specific industries would be marginal for rural communities, unless it is for self-cultivator households, for landless housesholds, I would posit it would be marginally zero in terms of additional net income.”

    Call me stupid if you will but why would anyone work if their additional net income was zero? I really don’t understand…

    “I think you should remember that this just takes the kid out for part of the day in school. If you lived with rural and small town households you would know that most children do a lot of their work in the early morning and evening, at times when adults are resting, especially if they are girls.”

    This doesn’t make sense. We are talking about children working full time, mid-day meal schemes work in such a way that children have to stay the entire day during school hours, atleast that’s how its supposed to be implemented.

  13. Which bring us back to the original topic. If the quality of schools in many parts of India is so low that people do not even want to send their kids there, what’s the point of scrapping standardised exams which were probably the only indicator of how the school was performing…

    • Vikram’s point wasn’t to say that in itself it would bring about social mobility or equality but that it should be part of a newer package, which provides more job opportunities and better skills for 70%-80% of the population. That at least is how I read it, Vikram may want to add his own clarification in case I misunderstood something.

  14. Call me stupid if you will but why would anyone work if their additional net income was zero? I really don’t understand…

    the key word here is ‘net’ if your opportunity cost for labour is partically nothing – ie you would be unemployed doing nothing otherwise, you would still work to cover your ‘costs’ ie to feed yourself, even if your ‘net’ income ie gross income – costs = 0. This is why peasant households keep on producing past the point when the marginal returns to labour are positive, since they have low or virtually nil opportunity costs to labour.

    So you would employ your kid, even if the net additional income to the household was zero, as he would still be better off earning enough to feed his mouth rather than be a drain on the household income.

    Sorry bout my explanation but economic theory isn’t every easy to put into ordinary language!

    “This doesn’t make sense. We are talking about children working full time, mid-day meal schemes work in such a way that children have to stay the entire day during school hours, atleast that’s how its supposed to be implemented.”

    Most full-time school days, exclude the period I am talking about – ie very early mornings and evenings; when a lot of work can be done. I lived in several villages where I saw kids do a lot of work around the farm before and after they came back from school, not to mention household chores.

    Also MDSMs aren’t always properly implemented effectively in practise.

  15. Rags, the most important question that we have to ask ourselves is, why are we educating our children ? Is the sole purpose of ‘educating’ children having them give some three hour exams that decide their fate ? Or is it to make them more complete individuals, people who have the capacity and confidence to find their own way in the modern world ?

    I think its the latter and I know a lot of people will agree with me on this. I am not saying some kind of standardized exams should not be part of a college admission procedure. But I hope you can see how tying standardized exams to school curriculum of a particular grade and making those exams the sole criteria for further progress in education adversely effects the quality and outcomes of the education in our school. And as I point out in the post, it also effects the notion of equality in testing.

    Set aside the schools of the poor with their teacher absenteeism and neglect, I will claim that even most of the rich/middle class kids are really not very well educated and learned. More than anything else, you will notice this in their communication skills. And this has a lot to do with this board exam centred mode of education.

  16. How easy it is to talk. First you dont pay teachers good enough salary , then teachers have to deal with notorious students ,and then they have to do loads of paper works ,and then when they dont get enough time to self study, they should also take exams. And what of inequalityies . They come as soon as a student goes to humanities and the other joins science. Do you ever discuss problems of teachers especially those who are doing sincere work without gwetting paid much.

    • Ela, I have not said much about teachers in the post. My opinion is that they should have more freedom in terms of what they teach, better working conditions and that there should be a mechanism for parents to hold them accountable.

  17. pardon my english

  18. […] have written earlier about exam centric evaluation in India. In his golden jubilee assessment of the IITs, IITK alumni and current director of the […]


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