One board and one exam: Is it a good idea?

The last couple of months saw the usual annual frenzy over the results of various board exams and entrance exams. Of late, these announcements are slowly acquiring a certain degree of predictability. The CBSE topper inches closer and closer to the unrealistic 100% total. The Bihar board exam topper routinely goes to jail. We see full-page advertisements from various IIT-training institutes claiming most of the IIT toppers as their own.

In the midst of all these, there was also a significant announcement by the Union minister of human resource development, Prakash Javadekar, saying there would soon be a single national board for India, which would be created by combining boards such as the CBSE, ICSE and others. As it is going to be a central government initiative, it may well be a case of CBSE board attempting to swallow some of the others.

On the face of it, it may not be such a bad idea. We are surely not going to miss the state boards like Bihar board, where ranks and results have been up for sale. Even in other state boards, where exams are conducted scrupulously, the questions are often repeated from the past years. Those staple questions typically test only rote-learning – betraying a lack of imagination and creativity on the part of the question-setters.

Board exams

However, CBSE itself does not come out in flying colours. There are more than 15,000 CBSE schools in all over India. Why is it then that in international tests like PISA and TIMSS, which benchmark school students in various countries, India languishes at the very bottom? Why does the corporate world constantly bemoans India’s unemployable youth?

Why is it that even our best schools are considered to be of poor quality compared to the international standards? In my opinion, the root cause is government regulations of the wrong kind, of which CBSE is the main flag-bearer.

To understand it, sample these rules from CBSE affiliation rulebook:

“The size of the library must be 14m x 8m and it must stock a minimum of 1500 books.”

“The head of the school should have a master’s degree and a degree in education and at least 8 years of teaching experience or 5 years of administrative experience in a recognised high school.”

According to the first rule, we don’t have to care about what sort of books we stock in a school library, we must be concerned more about its size. According to the second rule, our revered former president APJ Abdul Kalam would not have been eligible to run a school if he chose to set one up. Forget about running one – he would not even have been eligible to teach – as he did not have a degree in education.

So if we really have to set up a single national board, we must not use CBSE as the model. We must think anew. We must get over our curious obsession about input rather than output. We should banish the Soviet-style mindset that quality can be controlled by central diktat and a maze of regulations.

If we aim to create a single national board, it should focus on real-life skills and thinking orientation. Instead of dictating classroom sizes, it should promote a vibrant classroom environment. It should offer students a wide variety of choices, rather than forcing on them the same menu of subjects. It should aim to be at par with the best international boards like IB, CIE or Edexcel.

However, that may be too much to ask. Big bang reforms like that have less chance of materialising. Change happens incrementally. And if you look closely at the statement that the minister made, you find a glimmer of hope. He mentions that the main purpose of this single board will be to conduct examinations. If this proposed single board conducts a skill-oriented, world-class, aptitude test – which becomes a single window of the entrance to our colleges – that might well transform Indian education system.

We Indians can do everything if exams demand it. If exams demand that we have real-life skills – our teachers will prioritise those skills and students will try hard to acquire those skills. If exams demand that we get better at thinking, applying logic, and reading proficiently, then there is hope our students and teachers will focus on those areas. So, if there is really a single exam after the 12th standard which is skill-oriented, the whole school education system may change overnight.

This is not such a radical idea. Countries such as the US have a single exam – Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which is the gateway to most colleges. It will be easy to implement – the minister does not have to take on entrenched boards and force every one of them to conform to the same curriculum. The whole issue of marks disparity between different boards will not arise either.

I run a school which has been celebrated for waging a battle against rote-learning. At Levelfield School, we teach students to read well, apply their mind, solve problems. We won awards, we have been compared to the Phungshuk Wangdu’s dream school. We have been regularly rated among the top-10 schools nationally in standardised tests. But even we are often held back by the stifling regulations of the board. Near the board exam times, our students get derailed from their quest of acquiring 21st-century skills. To find any kind of success (which begins by gaining entry into a college), they must first pay homage to our obsolete system of memory-driven board exams.

So, I would appeal to the minister – change the system. Make it easy for the innovators to create world-class schools in India. Use our obsession for exams to cure our obsession for rote-learning.

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