CBSE paper leak is just the tip of the iceberg, it’s time to call out the institution

For years, the CBSE has been failing its students and this country at large.
CBSE paper leak is just the tip of the iceberg, it’s time to call out the institution
CBSE paper leak is just the tip of the iceberg, it’s time to call out the institution
Written by:

Vishnu Karthik

Seldom has education occupied national headlines in the way it has with the recent CBSE paper leak. It has brought forth CBSE’s ineptitude in being the national education board. There is a hysterical demand for fixing accountability by getting some heads to roll. Some quarters have even asked for the resignation of the HRD Minister. But how can you blame a Minister who has been at the helm for less than 20 months for a crumbling institution that has been on the path of decadence for several decades? Leaking of exam papers could be one of CBSE’s blatant blunders, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. CBSE is primarily an examination body providing course completion certificates by providing fair and transparent assessment systems. But for years, the CBSE has been failing its students and this country at large. And it’s time to scream that this Emperor hasn’t had clothes — for quite some time now.

Questionable evaluation process

CBSE’s mandate is to define the course of study, conduct examinations and provide fair assessments of student understanding. But lack of rigorous evaluation systems has often compromised the quality and consistency of its assessment processes. A clear indication of this trend is the inordinate number of students who can score beyond 90% and 95%; fuelling a maddening nationwide rush towards perfect scores even in the most subjective subjects, like English. An Indian Express report dated June 2017, indicated that in 2017, it is ten times more likely to score 90%+ and 21 times more likely to score a 95%+ than it was in 2004. What’s more alarming is that today, it is 58 times more likely to score a 90%+ in subjective and theory-based subjects like humanities. No other national board in India or abroad has shown such massive jumps in top scores. Clearly, CBSE has been artificially (or to put it crudely — manually) spiking marks to keep its constituency happy and cover up for its critical process gaps.

Another unscientific process CBSE resorts to, is ‘moderation’. While ‘moderation’ is used by international assessment bodies as a scientific statistical process to account for variability in examination/evaluation process, it is suspected that CBSE has often used it as an arbitrary and impromptu method to boost marks. There have been recorded instances where the board has decided to award 15% marks to every student — narrowing the apparent gap between an average and a good performer. Over the last two years, TOI and Indian Express published several statistical analyses consistently identifying artificial spiking of marks around the mark ranges of 25%–30% and 65%–95%. While one understands the need to give grace marks around marks range of 25%–30%, one cannot understand the ethics of pushing students as high as 30 marks in the range of 65%–95%. Another interesting trend is that some regional centres do exceptionally well. For example, a staggering 50% of students scoring 95% marks in English grade 12 exams come from Delhi schools! Over 16% of students from the Delhi circle scored exact 95% marks when the national average for the same mark is only 1.4%. Apparently, someone in CBSE has been generous in gifting marks away to some lucky students from the Delhi circle. Another example is that in 2014, only one school in the entire north, west or east of India made it to the top 10 list of schools ranked as per 5 subject averages. Any simple statistical analysis would tell us that this skewness indicates a more extensive artificial and selective boosting of marks at the regional centre level.

CBSE moderation process is a black hole. No one explicitly knows the moderation guidelines or what is the basis of these artificial spiking of marks. But what we do know is that for many students, scores are not a reflection of their understanding, and this incongruence makes the entire process of examinations inauthentic — driving a more substantial disengagement with the process of learning among students across the country.

Practical exams — Another scam waiting to be discovered

An open secret in this game of board exams is the evaluation of grade 12 practical exams. Practical exams are an excellent candidate for any media channel looking for the next sensational investigative piece. Some subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Entrepreneurship have a compulsory practical examination to test a student’s lab skills and practical applications. But everyone knows that it is a doctored formality. Most of the students will get 100% marks for practicals, and even the least prepared student will not stand to lose more than five marks. There is a tacit understanding between the exam evaluators not to harm the student, irrespective of the student’s proficiency. There have been cases where examiners, for the lack of time or other logistical constraints, would give marks to students even without conducting the mandatory viva or evaluating the student lab work. While the intent of the examiner is noble, it inevitably causes systemic cultural damage in the long run.

Lack of quality evaluators

Another critical problem a mammoth exercise like the board exams faces, is the lack of quality evaluators. Often, very bright students pay the price for their brilliant answers in the hands of an average teacher who blindly goes by the restrictive ‘marking scheme’. Any out of the box but relevant answer is penalised as it is not covered in the ‘blueprint’. This is not surprising as only 11.2% of existing CBSE teachers actually ‘passed’ CBSE’s own teacher eligibility test in 2016. Often schools pray that their papers are not sent to a nearby district for assessment where the quality of teachers is suboptimal — especially for niche subjects like English, Psychology, Political Science, Economics. A case in point is the urban schools in Noida, Gurgaon or Ghaziabad whose papers are sent to other districts in their respective states which may not have high-quality evaluators. The fate of our students often depends not on their hard-work or their teacher’s support but upon where their papers are assigned for evaluation. It is not uncommon to find very bright students scoring 95% in every subject except for a subjective subject like English where they would score a lifetime low of 60–65%. The only recourse is re-evaluation where the scores suddenly bump up to a 95%!

Lack of transparency and accountability

Every year, thousands of students are unfairly marked low, and the last recourse for many deserving students has been the option of re-evaluation. TOI in an article in 2016 and 2017, reported a substantial jump in students scores, at times even double post re-evaluation. But CBSE has never on its own, been transparent, accountable or fair to its students concerning its re-evaluation process. For many years, CBSE allowed re-evaluation only in 12 subjects out of the 200 subjects on offer. Students of niche but popular subjects like Entrepreneurship, Fashion Studies, Home Sciences, Physical Education were not even eligible to appeal for faulty evaluation. This is contrary to any principle of natural justice. CBSE response has always been that it doesn’t have the manpower to reassess papers and thus cannot allow re-evaluation as a policy, but can look into specific issues on a ‘case to case basis’. But with strict college deadlines in place and general comatose speed with which government machinery works, many students don’t have the courage or confidence to pursue the issue with CBSE. Even if they did, students are most likely to not get a response from the eternally busy CBSE’s toll-free number. In 2017, CBSE regressed on its own policy and said only re-totalling and not re-evaluation would be allowed even in these twelve core subjects. Fortunately, legal activism by four students in Delhi ensured that the Delhi High Court forced CBSE to be fair to its students and allow re-evaluation. In a scathing indictment of CBSE’s incompetence, the high court observed: “When there are so many errors in totalling, then how many would there be in evaluation.” While the courts have ensured a sense of fairness for their students at-least for now, one wonders what principles CBSE has been adopting so far? Transparency and accountability to its students or operational pragmatism?

Lack of autonomy for schools

One of CBSE’s mandates is to provide a consistent and standardised curriculum across the country — thus geared for a typical and average Indian school. But for a nation as large and diverse as India, a typical and average Indian school would often be distant in context for many schools. Many schools in this country are some of the best in the world, but they often have to compromise their academic practices to comply with average CBSE norms and curriculum. 2018 is the 10th anniversary of the subprime crisis/housing bubble and the global economic meltdown. Guess, how many references of this event in the CBSE economics curriculum? Zero.

Overregulation and centralisation

Part of CBSE’s assessment problems is its focus on multiple issues. Assessment is a specialised field, and it needs deep expertise on standardisation and normalisation processes; developing statistical models of moderation that are globally valid; developing robust peer sharing assessment protocols; developing multiple quality checks and systemically developing a cadre of high-quality assessors. But CBSE is burdened with multiple mandates of not just assessments, but also of regulation and administration of schools. It is also responsible for a multitude of entrance examinations across professional fields. In many ways, these many mandates by a single body is not a sustainable governance mechanism. A case in point is the recent notification from CBSE that the Board must approve all appointment of school heads/Principals of private schools. It is like expecting every private company to seek permission from the Ministry of Corporate Affairs before appointing their CEO. Wouldn’t this burden CBSE and schools with unnecessary bureaucratic paperwork — taking precious bandwidth away from student learning and assessments?

Misplaced belief in the power of centralised testing

CBSE’s belief that more centralised testing leads to increased learning outcomes is flawed. There is no scientific or research-based reason to scrap CCE and bring back grade 10 board exams. In fact, the grade 12 exams result shot up during the time grade 10 board exams were abolished. While CCE scheme implementation was a challenge, it also robbed several excellent and progressive schools in the country the opportunity to build real life and college readiness skills in students rather than the exam and rote learning skills. CBSE even contemplated a myopic plan to bring in standardised assessments from 6th to 8th. Thankfully, the plan was scrapped as this was against the tenets of Right to Education Act.

Some steps in the right direction

Amidst all the media frenzy, It is essential to recognise that finding a scapegoat for the paper leak is no solution. In fact, it will only divert the much-required attention from more significant reforms needed in CBSE. Due credit must also be given to the several small steps CBSE and MHRD have taken in the recent past. For one, CBSE took a partial but bold move to stop the practice of moderation by bringing the 31 odd education boards across the country for a consensus on ending the process. CBSE has also been slowly improving the quality of questions — although there has been a myopic backlash by parents and schools due to fear of a drop in marks. MHRD has initiated a process of exploring options to reduce curriculum and content load in order to focus on other life skills. Most importantly, the PMO has approved MHRD’s plan to set up the National Testing Agency — divesting CBSE of its other non-core functions like entrance examinations, to professional institutions.

Never fritter away a crisis

The current issue can be an excuse for more significant structural reforms of CBSE. To begin with, move away from the idea that more centralised testing would lead to better learning outcomes. Give more autonomy to good schools by not bringing in centralised assessments in any grade lower than grade 12. At least make grade 10 optional in the hands of the parents. Move to school accreditation model that focuses on academic process rather than exam marks. Divest CBSE of its non-assessment mandates like school regulation and make it a special body for assessments and grade 12 examinations. In subsequent years, strengthen a scientific moderation process that ensures a normal distribution of performance that discerns between an average, good and an excellent student. Invest in assessment cadre for all subjects not just to provide error-free evaluation but also fair opportunities for re-evaluation. Lastly, build a national consensus that 90% marks actually mean nothing without reforms of our evaluation system. After all, it is just not about the future of our students; it is also about our nation’s faith in our schooling process.

(Vishnu Karthik is the CEO of Xperiential Learning Systems and Associate Director of The Heritage Schools – A group of project based learning schools in Delhi NCR.)

(Note: Views expressed here are personal.)

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