Reforming board exams in India

[This blog had earlier argued that board examinations in India aren't high stake exams.]

Board examinations in today's India serve three purposes. 

  1. Board exams set the expectations to the school system, because most schools use these results as a proxy of their efforts in their communication with parents, and hence teach keeping these exams in mind, at least in the 10th grade.
  2. The results of board exams signal the ability of a child. Performing well in board examinations needn't mean that the student is good but not performing well is considered has a negative signalling effect.
  3. Board exams also serve as certificate of minimum qualification, which is used as eligibility criteria for low end jobs.
In this context, there are two issues with the board exams, as they are today. 

1) The first straightforward issue being, they aren't serving any of the above mentioned purposes effectively. 

Expectations of the system from students/schools, as indicated by standard of board exams is low. So, most schools are only teaching up to the level required to excel in board exam. This is artificially limiting the potential of even those schools and students who have the capability to do much more. The fact that even many elite schools in India, despite not having administrative issues, perform below international average on PISA scores suggest that their true potential isn't being used. One of the major reasons is the lack of standards which set those expectations.

Board exam results are also not seen as reliable signal of capability and knowledge of students. Today one can't distinguish a student who has gone through a thorough grooming and the other who has rote learned, from their board examination scores. This is also a disincentive to schools who put genuine efforts to impart good education as there isn't a reliable metric to distinguish their students from others, which can be used to show the parents.

2) Multiple objectives of the exam: We are using board examination both to certify minimum qualifications and also as an exam to signal capability of students. The net result being, it is doing neither of these.

An exam can only distinguish students if there are some good standard questions that can't be answered by everyone. If we include such questions in the exam, it improves the signaling capability of the exam but those who are attempting this exam to prove minimum competencies will  be at loss. This also brings in political pressures in any attempts to reform it. The increase in failures mount political pressures and even if one manages to improve its quality, it might be forced to return to its original low standards. On the other hand, if the exam is designed to assess minimum competencies then it loses its signaling power. It's similar to using results of a single driving exam to both decide the eligibility for license and to identify Fernando Alonsos and Michael Schumachers.

One solution to these issues can be to design good standard question papers and distribute to these to schools to educate about standards. But many schools won't have incentive to adhere to them because they are judged by the board exams at the end of the day and not by these standards. Some schools might change their ways upon mere provision of information on standards but those will only be the exceptions and not be true for an average school. Also, the issue of lack of credible systems to distinguish good students still remains.

The solution to this conundrum is to split the exam, have two exams for each subject - advanced and basic. Students can have option to write one or both. Advanced exam will have questions of high standard, which can be attempted by those students who want to use these results to signal their ability. Basic version of the exam can be attempted by students who want to use this exam to just prove their minimum competencies. One can go for advanced exam in English but basic exam in Maths and so on.  Gradually the level of basic version exam should be improved. 

The advanced version of the exam sets high benchmarks for those who desire and are capable to achieve it while the basic version suits the purpose of those who want to pursue different interests. This separation also removes the scope for political pressures and thus helps in effectively achieving the purposes of signalling and certification of minimum competencies.

There can be two potential concerns with such reform.
1) It can skew students towards Maths and Sciences, with students focusing more on advanced versions of these exams neglecting other subjects. But one must remember that students would be required to pass basic courses in other subjects which will be of today's standard and more. So, the net result in the new system (Advanced Maths + Basics of other subjects) would be more than the current (Basic Maths + Basics of other subjects).
2) Governments shouldn't mandate the type of exam attempted in 10th class, advanced or basic, as an eligibility criteria for admission into intermediate (+2) colleges. Rules like, only students who attempt advanced version of exam can take up mathematics in +2,  turn this into a high stakes exam  since it deprives opportunities to students at an early age. States like the erst while united state of Andhra Pradesh, had two sets of exams for Mathematics in 10th grade. The problem being, advanced course was eligibility criteria to take up sciences in +2 which caused distortions in the system. We should ensure that this doesn't happen.

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