There is nothing more tragic than watching a champion stumble—that is how most parents feel when their elation slumps into despair, even anger, as their child who got 85% marks cannot secure admission in any of the good colleges.
Then it dawns on some parents that the marking system has been unfair. And this, is what calls for a historical perspective.
The marking system in India was never very fair–especially after the 1970s, when the examination process began becoming more and more populist year after year.
Examiners for the SSC Board or the University Examinations were well aware that even if papers were evaluated fairly, scores were often changed by a district moderator, when going through the marks given by the various examiners that he was supposed to ‘moderate’. If he found one examiner had more students failing, he had the discretion to increase the marks of these ‘failed’ students, so that the number of failures for all examiners were ‘normalised’. Computers weren’t around, so only those who failed received grace marks.
Then suddenly the grace began to become a disgrace.
After the district moderators sent in their results, zonal moderators compared marks that each moderator had cleared. If one moderator still had more failures, his ‘list of shame’ was “propped up” with a few more grace marks. Finally, there were the state level moderators, who performed their own acts of grace. Astute educationists, even then, knew that a child with just 15% marks could be ‘graced’ all the way up to 35%.
Fast forward to today. During the past two years, engineering colleges were supposed to take in students only from the merit list of the all-India examination for high school students. To give state level examinations some ‘dignity’, so they wouldn’t be deemed redundant, courts allowed state governments to let state level examinations enjoy 30% weightage in the common entrance scores. And this, is where the race towards the dumbing down of scores began.
Till around 2010, there was a general agreement that the best reflection of a student’s academic excellence came through the scores of CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Examinations). Then came the IISC/ICSE, and then SSC. The last was conducted by the stateeducation boards. As local politicians did not want to watch their boys and girls flunk, the largest chunk of grace marks always went to students appearing for SSC examinations.
Now, with the 30% weightage system, both CBSE and IISC/ICSE administrators realised that SSC students would benefit and secure better marks for getting into engineering colleges. So both boards decided to give marks as liberally as the SSC board. Year after year, as each board raced along the downward spiral trying to ensure that their students were not disadvantaged.
The most disadvantaged were students from states like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where the average quality of schooling has always been better than in most other states. Though the quality of students from these states was better, when it came to a national moderation of scores, a 90% from these states was clubbed with a 90% from other states, where the schooling was not as effective. Thus, better students were marginalised. Jonathan Swift would have called this the rule of the Yahoos!
Now, with credits for sports and social work, it is possible for students to score 105% or 110% marks. The eventual consequence, is that students are made to believe they are outstanding— having scored 85%—when they might actually be mediocre, if not worse. This inflated sense of achievement makes them stumble even more easily when it comes to the competitive world of jobs.
Worse still, is the decaying academic standard, which has made almost every assessing organisation–McKinseys, TCS, Nasscom and IMBM—point out that barely 15-20% of students who graduate are employable. Yes, they have the marks. But they are poorly equipped to take on corporate responsibilities because their schooling has been bad.
Third, and more serious, is the progressive dumbing down of education at college levels – because students cannot cope with the standards that college students must have. As a result, universities across the world have begun to de-recognise the scores of Indian educational bodies.
But, the most serious issue is the inevitable ‘elite-isation’ of education. The poor examination system has ensured that school teachers can afford to stay mediocre, as their inefficiencies are not captured through examination results. Consequently, good education remains the privilege of those whose parents are well read, and can teach them at home. Alternatively, the benefits go to the children of rich parents, who can afford private tutors to compensate for the inadequacies of the schooling system. Not surprisingly then, survey after survey of IITs and IIMs shows that over 80% of the students enrolled are from the upper middle class. This will only increase the working class/management divide with dire consequences for our economic future.
That is when disgrace becomes a disaster.