Students at a Class 12 exam centre in Noida, March 5, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)
THE NATION LEARNED on June 1st that there would be no Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) board exams this year. The announcement ended weeks of nail-biting anxiety for millions of teenaged students across the country. Smaller private national boards, like the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, which conducts the Indian School Certificate (ISC) 12th standard exams, also followed suit. Several states have also cancelled their respective secondary school board examinations for the first time in living memory. Others may follow if the Supreme Court rules in favour of an India-wide cancellation request in a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by 6,469 parents on June 8th.
The decision to cancel the CBSE exam was taken after wide-ranging discussions with Central ministers and state chief ministers, in addition to extensive feedback from the primary stakeholders, that is, the students themselves. Unfortunately, during the high-level meeting in which the authorities came to this conclusion, Shiksha Mantri Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank was taken ill with post-Covid-19 complications and re-admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The announcement was thus made by the prime minister himself, with Higher Education Secretary Amit Khare prominently present on the video call screen in front of him.
The reasons cited by the prime minister are unexceptionable. As he said in his tweet after the meeting: “Government of India has decided to cancel the Class XII CBSE Board Exams. After extensive consultations, we have taken a decision that is student-friendly, one that safeguards the health as well as future of our youth.” A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) added, “Students should not be forced to appear for exams in such a stressful situation.”
Quoting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the statement went on to stress : “The health and safety of our students is of utmost importance and there will be no compromise on this aspect.” Who would debate or deny that our paramount concern is the health and safety of our graduating high school class? We simply cannot afford to jeopardise their lives and future during this deadly pandemic. Thankfully, the unpredictable, and as yet imperfectly understood, novel coronavirus has claimed very few lives in that age bracket thus far.
Yet, the so-called third wave, dire forecasts warn us, may actually strike them too. Just as the ghastly second surge took away many of our middle-aged, even perfectly healthy and productive, 30 and 40-year-olds. All the worse because during the first wave, we were told that only our seniors really risked death by Covid-19. Sadly, we were mistaken. And how! The colossal loss to life and property in the last couple of months has taken our total fatality figures beyond 3.5 lakh. With a still active case load of over 11.5 lakh, we simply cannot afford to take chances. Especially, where it concerns our young wards, who will be the builders of the nation and the world’s future in another decade or so.
As long as we are not sure that we can secure the safety and health of our exam-takers, we are hardly left with many choices. And it is clear that we are still unable to do so, given the uncertainty of vaccine protocols for those below 18, not to mention the shortage of shots that the country is currently facing. Now that the aerosol spread of the virus is more or less established, maintaining social distancing and masking at examination centres is no guarantee that our students will escape infection.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the pandemic has been a great disrupter so far as our education system is concerned. Students will benefit when they realise that the class 12 boards need not be the single make-or-break test that will determine their futures
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Under the circumstances, the Government acted wisely and boldly. The CBSE, we are told, will compile results in accordance with “well-defined objective criteria in a time-bound manner.” What this means is that previous board exam results of 10th standard, 12th standard pre-board scores, as well as continuous internal assessment will form the bases of the grades earned by school-leaving students. The complete set of evaluation parameters are expected any day.
While this is, admittedly, an imperfect solution, considering how competitive these national tests can be and how dependent on Class 12 board results college admissions are, this seems like the best option for the time being. The PMO communiqué adds that students wishing to take the exams will be permitted to do so after the situation improves.
Lest this alarm some parents and students, we must remember that many of our best universities, colleges and institutes, including the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), conduct their own entrance tests. The Class 12 board scores only serve as prerequisites for the much more competitive student evaluations for admissions to undergraduate studies. Central universities may also base their undergraduate admissions on a common entrance exam.
Autonomous colleges and private universities, too, have their own admission requirements, which they can tweak if the Class 12 board exams this year are indicative rather than definitive. Even Delhi University colleges, with widely publicised cut-offs, must be given greater flexibility since the Class 12 exams have been cancelled. A more holistic approach, including interviews of applicants, would be in order.
As for students wishing to go abroad for studies, all they need is to have cleared their 12th standard board. Their admissions are actually decided on multiple other criteria, including standardised worldwide exams like the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), along with statements of purpose, personal essays and letters of recommendation. For most of the rest, who will only make it to less sought after courses, actual grades in the board exams do not matter all that much.
Enabling students to clear their 12th standard, therefore, will facilitate their onward movement to undergraduate education. We must recognise that in many parts of the world, there are no nationwide school-leaving board exams. Each high school offers its own diploma, as does each undergraduate institution set its own admission benchmarks. There is, thus, no reason to panic if our board exams are not the be-all-and-end-all of the entire 12 years of school education. The stress they induce, in any case, is not desirable. The pandemic lesson, when it comes to school education, is obvious. We must be less examination and more learning-oriented.
However, this is not the moment to rest. Every crisis, as the cliché goes, is an opportunity. What is our great opportunity in this dark hour? It is to courageously and decisively move to blended examination mode. The CBSE and the National Testing Agency, which conducts several other competitive exams, certainly have the wherewithal to rise to the occasion. To begin with, we might adopt a mixed mode, with physical exams combined with digital ones. This will ensure some degree of continuity with the present system.
Overall, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the pandemic has been a great disrupter so far as our education system is concerned. Students will benefit when they realise that the Class 12 boards need not be the single make-or-break test that will determine their futures. In addition, the dematerialisation of classrooms means that continuous learning outcomes will matter much more than schools or teachers. The latter’s burdens and responsibilities have already been outsourced to digital tuition apps.
There is no doubt that digital infrastructure and access may in the future acquire greater importance than investments in brick-and-mortar facilities. Live learning of high quality will become an even greater luxury than it is now. But the silver lining is that the Government will have the opportunity to rethink the whole challenge of primary education and better utilise the enormous expense to the Central and state exchequers than on our dysfunctional and ineffective present systems.
More immediately, after the requisite scientific approvals and due diligence, we must hasten to vaccinate our youth on a war footing. Once the supply of vaccines increases, which should be soon, we might be in a better position to do so. Thereafter, with adequate safety measures, the Class 12 board can make up or improvement tests may be conducted in a less stressful or risky environment. That way, the prime minister may say, in his inimitable style reminiscent of his December 31st, 2020 slogan, “Davai bhi, Kadai bhi, Pariksha bhi.”