Another season of admissions has launched with the big bang news that many institutions affiliated with Delhi University (DU) have set admission cut-offs – the 12th board scores – to 100%. College officials have claimed that the “high” cut-offs are to prevent “over admission” given that a huge number of students have scored in the high 90s for almost every examination board. With the pandemic leading to exams being cancelled, Class 12 scores were awarded based on a formula that included marks from the 10th standard board examinations, 11th standard school tests, and those from the mid-term/pre-board examinations held for Class 12. All this has meant bloated averages.
However, to put the blame for this state of affairs on the Covid-19 pandemic is not right. Much of this high cut-off madness originated years ago. The number of high scorers has kept on increasing. CBSE board students getting more than 95% aggregate was 10,138 in 2017; 12,737 in 2018; 17,693 (1.47%) in 2019; 38,686 (3.24%) in 2020; 70,004 (5.37%) in 2021 (for more details, see data for the years 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020). Many boards indulge in similar tricks to varying degrees, the simple justification being that every other board is doing so. This is now an established, vicious cycle of competitive grade inflation. The ridiculously high DU cutoffs have also made news earlier as well. This time around, though, the news generated controversy when a DU faculty member made references to a “marks jihad”. Because so many students with 100% scores were from the Kerala state board, it was alleged that the board had inflated marks of Class 12 students to enable them “grab” DU seats, and that this was a part of a larger “leftist” design.
Another significant activity that contributes to high scores, other than generous marking, is the ‘tampering’ of raw marks being ‘moderated’ to unjustifiably high values (e.g. 80 being moderated to 95). The so-called moderation rules have allowed boards to have free reign in modifying raw marks largely without any statistical basis.
It is alarming that universities and institutions rarely ask basic questions about statistically-impossible marks distributions that the boards end up “generating”. Typically, examinations held for large cohorts should produce a bell-shaped curve showing most students with middling scores with smaller clusters at the extremes of high and low scores. The distribution curve may be tilted to the left (too many people having low marks) or to the right (too many people having high marks), depending upon how difficult or easy the question paper was. In any case, there is no ‘natural’ way in which ‘spikes’ (like at 95%) can be produced. Why, then, do institutions accept an implausibly-skewed distribution of marks for admission? If there are so many students getting high scores, does it suggest that examinations are too easy, and therefore not a good measure to rank students? Indeed, a lot of this high scoring has to do with the intrinsic rote nature of learning in our pedagogical systems based on the reproduction of received information, pattern recognition, multiple-choice questions and short-answer questions which are graded using keywords. No wonder we have idiocies like students scoring a perfect 100% in English!
It is even more mysterious that there is hardly any discussion – either public or among ‘expert’ educationists – on how to compare marks across different boards. Institutions simply take marksheets literally without any recognition of the fact that 85% for one board may be as good as 95% for another. Of course, with all the moderation, tampering and spiking of marks, such a discussion loses relevance.
Students obsess about scoring which then overwhelms the importance of learning. This situation is taking a heavy psychological toll on students. Many of them find that they were not as perfect as their board marks made them feel because they are not able to get into their coveted institutions.
The quick fix solution, undertaken by institutions, to this deep-seated problem is to conduct their own admission tests in order to bypass board marks completely. Many central universities too have been taken up with this idea, resulting in the implementation of the Central Universities Common Entrance Test (CUCET). The test – much like the JEE and NEET – brings multiple choice questions (MCQs) to the admissions process for the Humanities and Social Sciences, subjects that should never be tested through this mode. A classic example of the one-size-fits-all “homogenization” of all types of knowledge.
Centralized, over-arching entrance examinations have many unintended consequences. Like the rise of coaching classes to “crack” the CUCET. This will lead to the exclusion of those who cannot afford coaching. Also, the more elitist boards like CBSE and ICSE will dominate the admissions. We have seen some of these bitter truths in Tamil Nadu’s recent analysis of the NEET. The effects of such unintended consequences can sometimes lead to death by suicide.
It is amazing that even while we celebrate “Azadi ka Mahotsav” as a tribute to 75 years of independence, students still wait for azadi from third-rate board examinations and the excruciating grind of coaching, entrance examinations, and (usually) grave disappointment. What we desperately need in the long-term is a switch away from rote learning. The New Education Policy may lead us to a completely revamped examination system though it seems like a distant dream given the drag exerted by the baggage of history.
In the medium-term, examination boards should work out a basic framework to coordinate across curricula, examination patterns, evaluation, moderation, etc. Such coordination should enable the capture and analysis of how different boards have distributed marks across the years. Such historical statistics are the key to devising schemes that can compare student performance across different boards. This is necessary for board examinations to build their credibility if they have to provide a rational basis for admissions.
For the short-term, entrance examinations seem to be the only option for conducting admissions. The focus should, however, not be exclusively on centralized examinations like CUCET, but also on state-level entrance tests which are better aligned with the local curriculum.
An intelligent restructuring of the admissions process is the least that governments, board administrators and institutions can do to clean up the mess they have created and sustained for decades.
(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)
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