Chemistry Paper Leak in Karnataka: Do We Really Need Board Exams?

Tuesday, 12 April 2016
Parth J Shah
The Quint

Karnataka’s state board couldn’t stop the chemistry exam paper from walking out on 21 March. The exam was rescheduled to 31 March and the paper was leaked again! Now it’s scheduled for 12 April. What do you think would happen on the 12th? These paper leaks are routine at state boards and cause serious distress to millions of students in the state.

Let’s take a look at the solution provided by the Department of Pre-University Education. They have banned the use of WhatsApp to stop the paper from being leaked on 12 April. A cruel joke on students and parents as no one in the department would get punished for the leak if it were leaked again.

Apart from the state boards, CBSE, ICSE, IB (International Baccalaureate) are the other secondary education boards. State boards leak routinely, CBSE infrequently and ICSE and IB rarely ever.

So, what’s the reason for this disparity? The same reason that explains the difference in the leakage in bathrooms of the government, PSUs, and the Barista. The degree of the control by politicians and bureaucrats, in other words, the degree of autonomy and independence makes the difference.

CBSE is an autonomous and independent body but comes under the ambit of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). ICSE and IB are private boards. So, to minimise these paper leaks, the first step is institutional reform. Make state examination boards independent and autonomous. And make a senior officer responsible for the security of exam papers; we should know whose job is on the line if a paper is leaked.

Using Technology

Instead of banning WhatsApp, modern technology could be a powerful tool to protect exam papers. CBSE uses the banking system to securely transport their exam papers, may be the same vans that carry cash to ATMs. One can imagine the exam paper delivered to a printer in the exam hall after the students have taken their seats. Or as each student enters the exam hall, a simple Kindle-type of reading device is given on which the paper is transmitted via the net.

Given the number of exams that India conducts for school boards, entrance tests for management and engineering colleges, special exams for college admissions in Honours Courses, exams for various government services, supplying Kindle-type simple readers could be a profitable business. Here is an idea for our politicians and bureaucrats to earn a little honest money!

The paper leak is a huge money maker precisely because the future of millions of students is riding on how well they do in these exams. Along with private tuitions and coaching classes, they are willing to pay thousands or lakhs to do well in the exams. If a single exam is going to determine your life, what would you be willing to pay to succeed? The unbearable pressure to succeed is also the reason for increasing student suicides.

Holistic Assessment of Students

Are there better ways to assess the capabilities of students? Very few countries in the world hang the lives of their young ones on a single exam pole. SAT type of aptitude tests combined with internal school exam results could provide a basis for college admissions. The portfolio method – that includes internal marks, projects, extra-curricular activities – could be a better method to assess students. 

Why do we need board exams? The argument is that we need a uniform scale to assess millions of students. It was meant to make the college admissions committee’s job easier. Just one look at a number told you whether the student would be given admission or not. But that was before entrance tests became a standard. Colleges don’t seem to or want to trust the board results. If colleges are going to design their own assessments, why torture students with board exams?

We must also ask what board exams really measure. It is generally agreed that these exams are just memory tests and don’t test students on their grasp of the subject. Add to this the disinterest and consistency of the overworked and poorly paid teacher-evaluators. What is the real difference between a student who scored a 90 someone with 98? Just the dance of lady luck!

The immediate solution could be for a college to declare the minimum qualifying marks and then select from all those who meet that criterion. That would be fairer and less traumatic with far fewer suicides. Our children could expect at least that much from the mai-baap sarkar.

(Parth J Shah champions school choice at the Centre for Civil Society, the only Indian think tank in Global 100).