Does Kerala grade SSLC exams too liberally: Minister's comment sparks debate

In 2005, the year that the grading system was introduced, the pass percentage was 58.49. Since then, it has been a steady increase, never falling below 90 after 2008.
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Amid the typically uproarious air of Assembly question hours, Minister Saji Cherian stood up on Thursday, July 4, to dole out a quick reply about his disparaging remarks concerning students who cleared their School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) exams. He had during a speech at an event dropped a line about students clearing their SSLC exams not being able to read or write properly, because, he added, the grades were given too liberally. Predictably, the comment did not go down well. 

On Thursday, he said, there was no need to make a mountain out of a molehill. He only meant some students, based on an experience of finding words spelled wrong by a student he knew. Now let there be a discussion on it, the minister said. From another chair, Minister for Education V Sivankutty, who had already brushed down his colleague's comments earlier, trivialised it as something Saji Cherian said in the flow of his speech. 

But Minister Saji's rhetoric raises the question, long accepted as a norm: is the evaluation of Class 10 exams, where students have more than 99% success rate, done all too liberally? More importantly, do students in Kerala, a state with enviable literacy rates, lack language skills despite clearing their matriculation?

Minister Saji Cherian
Minister Saji Cherian

In December 2023, a comment of similar nature was made by the Director of Public Education (DPI) S Shanavas. He said that while it was acceptable to give up to 50% marks, it would bring down the standards of education if more students were graded A+ (marks worth 90% or more) only to show good performance rates every year. 

The grading system of evaluation was introduced in Kerala in 2005. Until then, the names of top ranking students would be spread across the front pages of newspapers, making SSLC a bigger deal every passing year. Mounting pressures on the students and the unhealthy competition the practice drove, prompted lawmakers to bring in the reforms. Interestingly, in 2005, the pass percentage was 58.49, with only 469 of the 4,72,880 students getting A+. Since then however, it has been a steady increase, touching 69, 82 and 92 percentages respectively in the next three years. It never fell below 90 afterward. 

Compare it with 2001 when a circular was issued, lamenting the disappointing pass percentage of 42, before applying moderation, and you see the mountainous leap made in just a few years.

“The grading system (introduced in 2005) ended the practice of moderation. For primary education, the DPEP (District Primary Education Program), using games and projects and not just textbooks, was already in place. In my opinion, exams are conducted to encourage students to learn, and to evaluate how much they have learned. We should not think that the purpose of exams will be served only if some students are made to fail. On the other hand, we should examine if students, completing a certain level of education, have attained the knowledge they should have at that level. This should not be a mechanical process,” says MA Baby, former Minister of Education and Culture in Kerala.

MA Baby
MA BabyFacebook

He gives the example of N Krishna Pillai, late dramatist and scholar, who taught the likes of the great poet ONV Kurup in university. “He wrote in his memoir about the time he wrote his SSLC exams (back then, it was called the sixth form) and found Math very difficult. The DPI of the time, CP Ramaswamy Iyer, allowed for some extra moderation that year, in addition to whatever was in place, and that, he writes, is the only reason he had passed the exam. Imagine what would have happened if he failed his exam and not grew up to be this great scholar. So giving moderation is not a bad thing. If a student is good in some subjects, but not in some others, they should still be allowed to continue studying, that is my philosophy,” Baby adds. 

Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was a child prodigy in the subject, failed other subjects in the first year of his college, so invested was he in Mathematics, Baby says, proving his point. But he reiterates the need to consistently evaluate and evolve the teaching process, and ensure we don't fail in teaching children the basics. 

Lack of language skills

A few parents of schoolchildren that TNM spoke to agreed with the observation on lack of language skills in students made by Minister Saji Cherian and the DPI. The mother of a Class 8 student in Palakkad says that her daughter is not able to communicate in English properly even though she studies in a government English medium school. “We chose the government school because it is the best in our neighbourhood and is quite popular. I am happy with everything except the communication skills of my daughter. She knows English, but she can't speak the language properly when compared to the students in a nearby private school. I think they are also not teaching grammar properly,” she adds.

Image for representation
Image for representation

Sivaprasad, the father of a fourth grader at a lower primary school, says that he was concerned about the lack of his child’s language skills, and began buying her English books to read. 

It is not a problem of over-concerned parents. A schoolteacher in Palakkad also expresses similar concerns. "My class has students who don’t know how to write and read properly. It is becoming confusing for me whether to focus on teaching them the basics of language or what is in the curriculum,” she says. Casting aspersions on the education system, the teacher adds that students up to class 9 of her school have been promoted every year, regardless of their level of learning or performance in exams.

Students also admit to having little confidence in language matters. A Plus Two student from Palakkad says that he is not able to communicate in English even though he studied at a government English medium school till Class 7 and completed high school at an aided English medium school. Malayalam medium students also have similar issues. 

“I studied in Malayalam medium, but I did not have any language-related concerns when I was in Kerala. However when I went to Hyderabad for my Masters, I found it very difficult to communicate with others. Spoken language is the problem, I have no difficulty in writing English,” says a student who graduated from a government school in Thrissur. 

Anjali who went to an aided school and a government school afterward says that most often, language is taught only with the idea of getting a good score for the exams, and teachers rarely encourage speaking in English to improve their communication skills. 

What is needed

What is needed is a quality improvement program, says Education and career consultant TP Sethumadhavan. “The minister’s statement that students finishing their SSLC can’t read or write raises some ambiguity. If that is the case, then it is a problem that should be addressed much earlier, not wait till their Class 10 exams.”

TP Sethumadhavan
TP SethumadhavanFacebook

He says that an assessment report of education by the Pratham agency gives a picture of how much students in every grade can read and write. “According to it, Kerala is far ahead when compared to other states in South India. If we still have a concern about the pass percentage of SSLC (99.2% this year), we should restructure the evaluation process. Otherwise these students clearing their exams will go for higher education without the basic knowledge and end up in the unemployment pool. What we instead need to do is focus on skill oriented courses, on communication skills and general knowledge and so on,” Sethumadhavan says. 

Veteran education expert RVG Menon echoes the statement, about giving focus to the particular subject(s) that a student excels in. He brushes down the importance of SSLC exams, dubbing it as a mere qualification for higher studies. "The SSLC examination has lost its past significance, compared to those days when it was considered the Matriculation Examination, qualifying students for their University education. Now that function is performed by the Higher Secondary Examination. The SSLC results only indicate completion of the primary and secondary school studies. It is found in Kerala that almost everybody completes it, as it rightly should be so," he says.

Like MA Baby, RVG too believes that a student should not be stopped from going for higher studies if they are bad in a certain subject when they are skilled in another. "A standardised examination may be held at state level to gauge the relative merits of students who apply for higher education in various colleges and institutes. This may be held in various subjects like Mathematics, Languages, Sciences and Humanities. The marks or grades they acquire in such an examination may be the criteria for admission in an appropriate institution. For example, if the student wants to pursue higher studies in languages, there is no need to check whether he/she had secured a passing grade in Maths. Alternatively, for one trying to do higher education in humanities, the SSLC scores in sciences or maths is irrelevant. In other words the passing / failing or high score / grades in SSLC become irrelevant."

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