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.