Will history be kind to students and their ‘pandemic grades’ once the Covid crisis ends?

From Class 12 assessments to college admissions, the ad hoc processes in place shouldn’t be held against students in public perception.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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In the late Sixties, the number of students passing the state school board examinations in Bihar swelled. But the young matriculates were mocked for having passed with what was disdainfully dubbed as the “Karpoori division”. It isn’t difficult to deduce why.

In 1967, Karpoori Thakur, the state education minister who became chief minister of Bihar three years later, removed English as a compulsory subject in the Class 10 curriculum. The decision was shaped by Lohiaite ideology as well as Thakur’s sensitivity to the difficulties faced by rural students in passing English as a mandatory paper in the board exams. The challenge was often seen as the “English Channel” of matriculation.

Karpoori believed it dented the self-esteem of an entire generation of rural students and that it held many of them back from pursuing higher education. The rise in the number of matriculates showed that the going had, indeed, got easier for examinees.

A section of public opinion, however, was unimpressed. The fact that students weren’t required to clear English on their way to passing the board exams was held against them. “Karpoori division” became a handy phrase to express the purported “lowering of standards” and to look down upon the new batch of matriculates.

Today, this memory of how people might view relaxed exam conditions and their outcomes comes to mind in an entirely different situation brought by the Covid pandemic. The internet is already replete with jokes and memes about the ease of passing online semesters and annual university exams. The grave conditions leading to the cancellation of conventional exams and the need to avoid disruptions in academic sessions might be immediately apparent.

But the more intriguing question is: how will the future look at the “Covid batch”, so to speak? Will it use hindsight to understand the specific needs of an unusual period or will it be sceptical of the academic credentials earned during pandemic-ordained exam conditions? These questions must also be open to another possibility; that in the next few years, the evaluation process might normalise what now seems like offbeat exam conditions.

In many ways, even the task of agreeing on a reasonable way to temporarily fill in for regular exams is riddled with difficulties. Most recently, the cancellation of the Class 12 CBSE exams posed many such questions. Academics like Anurag Mehra from IIT Bombay’s Centre for Policy Studies pointed out some of these concerns regarding “assessed marks” and predicting grades in the absence of regular exams.

If past records of marks in school exams are taken into account, there is the obvious problem of different schools within the same board following different approaches to marking. Some schools encourage students with lenient marking, others push for more effort with strict evaluation. This absence of a level playing field is compounded by the affiliation of schools to different boards: CBSE, ICSE, a number of state boards, and so on. Each board has a different curriculum as well as a different approach to marking answer scripts.

Along with these factors, there is a concern that the digital divide might affect internal assessment scores. Students from economically weaker sections, with limited access to technology, could be at a disadvantage because a large part of teaching during the pandemic was done online. Moreover, there’s always the possibility of schools fabricating marks for two reasons: a large number of them do not conduct regular exams to have past records, and those that do might want results that show the school in a favourable light. Generations of students in India, for instance, take high marks in practical exams as a gift from schools. Now, the scope for such generosity is the whole marksheet.

In the short term, the cancellation of the Class 12 board exams will pose practical questions for decision makers outside the school campus too. Unlike the secondary stage of Class 10, Class 12 is a school-leaving stage and the performance in Class 12 exams is still the gateway to admissions to most Indian universities. Professional education institutions, such as those teaching engineering or medicine, have their entrance tests. But only a few regular universities have entrance tests for undergraduate courses: some have it for a few courses while the rest admit students based on Class 12 marks. University administrations will now have to grapple with yardsticks to apply to their undergraduate intakes, given the wide variations in marking patterns across schools and boards.

Even other methods of evaluation, like common entrance tests for admission to central universities, are fraught with uncertainty as the future run of the Covid pandemic makes any schedule hard to predict. In any case, non-central universities, which constitute the larger chunk, won’t be using such tests as a basis for admissions. In pre-pandemic years, universities admitting students based on their Class 12 scores were witnessing a surreal surge in cut-off marks. It was seen as a sign of how lenient the marking approach of boards like CBSE had become.

Given these factors, the marking schemes adopted by schools might find it tough to wade through the challenge of credibility. Even when regular board exams were conducted, exam malpractices in a few states had given enough grist to take even toppers with a pinch of salt. However, the scrutiny was mostly directed at some dubious instances in state board results alone, to the exclusion of central boards. It often took the form of a media circus, where a sense of proportion was in short supply.

In colonial times, the sense of achievement drawn from passing the school board and intermediate exams, the pre-university stage, was largely based on ideas of tough curriculums and fair assessment. In literary works set in the colonial period, one may get a glimpse of it, as well as its critique. In the great Hindi writer Premchand’s short story Bade Bhai Sahab, the character of the elderly brother represented different shades; the critical take of Macaulayan education could be seen but the flashes of the rigour of the exam system were also visible. In the Indian English literary scene of the period, RK Narayan’s short story Iswaran narrated a tale of disappointment, self-doubt and tragic success of a man who had failed his intermediate exams nine times. He drowned to death when he finally passed the exam in his tenth attempt.

In the wide-ranging casualties that the pandemic has left in its trail, the lost years of school and university campus might be one of them. One really doubts whether examination halls will be missed by the same number of students. The ad hoc processes put in place to overcome the exigencies of a pandemic shouldn’t be held against them. When the world limps back to normalcy, the costs of unusual times shouldn’t be settled by branding them as students who got through benchmarks any less than anyone else.

The generation that passed with “Karpoori division” had no role in a decision of which they were derided as a beneficiary. The current pandemic isn’t the doing of the students supposedly benefitting from relaxed exam norms either. There must not be a “corona division” by any means.

Also see
article imageLSR student’s suicide shows how the pandemic has deepened inequality and apathy in education
article imageWhy UGC’s rationale for conducting exams in a pandemic doesn’t fly


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