Siddharth Kumar, 17, a student at an elite private school in Gurgaon, is a nervous wreck. The class XII board exams are around the corner and he’s wondering if having escaped the preparatory board exams in class X (made optional under the CBSE in 2010) was such a boon after all. “The new system has made us a little more vulnerable in the last year of school. Perhaps I would have felt better prepared had I taken the boards back then?” he muses. His mother Juhi feels much the same. “The idea behind making board exams optional was to relieve students of stress, wasn’t it? But after a bout of relief in class X, the stress has come back double-fold this year,” she says, as mother and son pore over extra sets of sample papers to make up for the lack of prior “board exam experience”.
It’s the time of the year when parents, students and educationists are asking the same thing: have the government’s flagship educational measures like Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE), Right To Education (RTE) and “relaxed” classroom rigour failed to live up to expectations? They may just have, suggests the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), released by the Pratham Education Foundation recently. As in the last four years, the report records an alarming slide in standards in the quality of learning in rural schools. Yes, the pupil-teacher ratio, number of useable toilets and regulation of mid-day meals has improved a bit, but the percentage of children in class III able to read a class I-level text has been in steady decline since ’09. The percentage of class III students who can subtract has gone down by over 10 points in the last four years. “There is no reason to believe the situation is any better in urban schools. It may be worse,” says Pratham founder-CEO Madhav Chavan.
A recent survey by education body Shiksharth and Miranda House in Delhi reveals that students regard examinations as “negative yet necessary”, due to the lack of an alternative. To be sure, with the CCE, the focus has shifted to a somewhat more inclusive approach, like taking into account other aspects of student development such as sports, extra-curricular activities, attitudes and values. “The CCE is a good idea in theory, but we need a system to implement it. We don’t have the facilities in a majority of schools to make it work,” says Rajagopalan. And those that do seem to feel trapped in a web of unwieldy parameters. “Even within the new parameters, the atmosphere is competitive. The teachers have become data operators with all the extra paperwork. Making the exams optional has got students out of the study habit and that I think has led to a lowering of standards,” feels Bose.
There are parents, like Mysore-based K.R. Usha, who have benefited from the relaxed academic rigour. “It helps average performers like my daughter. But all the other parents I know complain that the seriousness of academics has been lost, that there is no difference between a student who gets 90 and 100. Star performers don’t feel recognised for their work.” Her daughter, Niyatha, 16, a Kendriya Vidyalaya student, pitches in, “CCE made it easier for us to deal with shorter portions in class X. But now, in class XI, I’m finding it difficult to cope with larger portions.” Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer who has been closely involved with the RTE act, says scrapping the compulsory board exams has disturbed the system’s continuity. It may have also fuelled a sense of defiance among students, teachers say. There is the worrying trend of students handing in empty answer sheets because they know they can’t be held back. “If we allow a failing student to move to the next grade, how do we correct the fact that a student is far below the class standard? Without external examiners, how do we hold teachers accountable for not being able to help students learn?” asks Seema Sinha, a government school educator.
But those are small niggles in the larger scheme of things. The real root of the rot, the lack of solid, thinking educators and leaders, rakes up the old debate that gains urgency every passing year. Last December, the Central Teachers Eligibility Test revealed shocking results. Only one per cent of the nearly eight lakh applicants cleared the test. “We have too many headless organisations and underqualified teachers. I don’t see the intent to reform education,” says Agarwal. “We haven’t built enough institutions to train teachers and leaders who can guide educational institutions. As a result, there is a lot of irrelevant teaching, and the emphasis is more on finishing the syllabus rather than trying to fully integrate the various processes of learning,” says Sunil Batra, education director, Shikshantar School, Gurgaon. Chavan also places blame on the lack of standardised levels of learning. The message is loud and clear: we need to get right back to the drawing board.
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