The short answer: Not much.
The unexpected nature of the cancellations, coming in the middle of a great global crisis, has been upsetting for many. But what it has upset is really a certain culture of test-preparation. The far greater casualty has been the intermittent, irregular and uneven reality of education across the various striations of the digital divide across the nation; the time and experience lost, about which I’ve tried to make recommendations earlier in this column. The loss of the board exams is really the least important loss of all, something which will matter very little in the larger scheme of the educational experience, and will be soon forgotten as students move to college and beyond – outside of that giant asterisk our transcripts and career-notes will bear worldwide – whose universality will essentially make it meaningless.
There are murmurs of protest from many students over the 30%-30%-40% evaluation criterion announced by the CBSE – divided between the final exam marks from Class X, XI, and XII, respectively. Class XI, taken relatively lightly by many students between the crucial years of X & XII, tends to see a dip in performance, and naturally students are not ecstatic about the performance of the lukewarm year being included in the overall assessment.
But these are exactly the kind of blind spots created by the examination system. As Sanjay Tyagi, the Principal of St. Froebel Sr. School in Delhi recently told Outlook, “Exams don’t assess abilities; they merely provide a snapshot of the knowledge an individual has been able to retain at a given point of time.” The need to perform within that snapshot has created an absurd amount of pain and stress, and has often led to severe mental health problems and countless suicides over the years. Past initiatives, such as the Mudaliar and the Kothari commissions, suggested various reforms to the examination system, but nothing much has changed over the years.
What is the implication of cancelled board exams vis-à-vis the college admission process? What are colleges looking for? Abruptly, the pandemic-induced cancellation of exams has pushed us towards the terrain of the future, where the importance of board exam results in college admission decisions will continue to diminish. As more and more independent colleges and universities start to dot the landscape beyond the older public universities – and as curricula and evaluation within the public universities themselves continue to change following the NEP recommendations for innovative interdisciplinary education – admission to colleges and universities will look forward to the student’s ability to succeed in higher education and research, rather than look back to their performance on a timebound ritual of assessing the passive consumption of knowledge.
Why does this admission procedure appear intangible and invisible compared to the straightforward board-exam-result-driven system? Over the last few decades, IQ and standardised tests have been accused of being limited, of assessing skills already privileged, even accused of racism. Subsequently, selection processes have sought to expand themselves, to evaluate not just narrow testing skills, but to reach out to the whole personality of the applicant as much as possible. As grades in board exams play an increasingly diminished role, we now have many other factors now factored in: the personal essay, standardised and customised aptitude tests, on-the-spot writing, and crucially, the personal interview.
The goal, for many leading universities in the world, is to create a diversified class where peers teach one another rather than select applicants of monochromatic merit. That is what I learned from Rick Shaw, the Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Stanford, when he came to speak to the English department, where I was teaching at that time. Much the way Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has shown us the limitation of IQ theory, the holistic admission process is a far better indicator of student fit for the program concerned than grades obtained at a standardised board examination. As Shaw said in another interview, “It isn’t just about the courses or the grades,” he said. “It’s about the human being behind all of it.”
When it comes to the purely academic component of a student’s readiness for a particular college – or for a specific program within it – it is established that continuous assessment methods make up a far better indicator of academic aptitude and preparation than a single exam limited to a narrow window of time. Such assessment can be made up of smaller tests, presentations, class participation, interactive and group work, and various kinds of research and practical assignments spread out through the entirety of the educational experience. The efficacy of such assessment may be highly staggered across schools with vastly different kinds of resources. But neither is a single standardised exam a fair way of evaluating a vast spectrum of student body scattered over highly uneven life conditions in a country as vast as India.
Like many dystopias, the pandemic has suddenly pushed us many years into the future – and made us acutely aware of the uphill task to get a highly unequal society ready for it. The digital implications of this futurism in education is already apparent to us, as well as the heavy tolls it has taken on the disadvantaged sections of society. The dissipation of the single board exam is another crucial consequence of this unforeseen futurism. We’ll get there soon enough. The sooner we can prepare for it, the better it is for all of us.
(With research input by Harshita Tripathi. Saikat Majumdar writes about arts, literature, and higher education. He tweets @_saikatmajumdar. Views Expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)