Reforming board exams in India

Weak governance, lack of political will and many other similar reasons are often suggested as reasons for poor functioning of the public school system. If these are the real problems, then the question is - would addressing these problems lead to high quality education?

While one might be tempted to say "Yes", I would caution against it. Consider the scenario of high-end private schools. They don't have the usual problems that plague public systems like weak governance, lack of funds, personnel etc. Yet, many international assessments show that students of Indian high-end private schools are below international average.

Why is it that Indian high-end private schools are not matching up to global standards despite having every resource at their disposal? My argument is that poor quality of Indian board exams is the key reason for the below the potential performance of Indian high-end private schools.

This blog post explores this argument in detail and proposes an outline for board exam reform.

Nature of Indian board examinations

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.

Issues with Indian board examinations

1) Board exams aren't serving any of the above mentioned purposes effectively:

To begin with, board exams do a very poor job of setting expectations to the school systems. Board exams in India are the reflection of the widely prevalent rote based learning. Questions in these exams are often as rote as they can get. Because board marks are the only comparable and easily disseminable metric, most schools end up teaching only to the level required to excel in the board exam, perpetuating rote learning.

This artificially limits 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 understanding of concepts 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) The multiple objectives of board exams make it impossible to design a quality test.

We are using 10th grade 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, the questions that can differentiate students. Including such questions improves the signaling capability of the exam but might harm those attempting it to signal minimum qualification. 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.

Today, even if we want to do a full scale reform of board exams, the dual purpose of the test makes it difficult to design.

Outline for Indian board examination reform

The board exam reform in India thus has to have two aspects

1. Upgrade the quality of the exam: While this is a straight forward step, doing it suddenly might create some transition issues. As everyone doesn't have access to full resources, a sudden increase in quality of exams causes increase in failure rates that might also lead to political pressures.

The political economy problem and the issue of multiple-objectives of the exam can be addressed with the second aspect of the reform

2. Different assessments for different objectives - a basic and advanced exam for each subject:

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. 

The advanced version of the exam has the potential to become the new signaling tool and parents would start expecting results from schools on this exam, which hopefully would make schools adjust their teaching practices.

This separation also removes the scope for political pressures and thus helps in effectively achieving the purposes of signalling and certification of minimum competencies.

Addressing potential challenges for reform

There can be three potential concerns with such reform.
1) Different versions of exams can skew students towards Maths and Sciences, with students focusing more on advanced versions of these exams neglecting other subjects: 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 the new system (Advanced Maths + Basics of other subjects) would be better than the current (Basic Maths + Basics of other subjects).
2) Segregation of students at school level may deprive the late bloomers: It's a genuine concern. 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. 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 that make only students who attempt advanced version of Math eligible to take up mathematics in +2,  deprives opportunities to students at an early age.

3) Teaching to the test: One of the common criticisms of any assessment based reforms is that schools will end up teaching to the test. I am not much worried about this. If the quality of exam is good enough, teaching to the test might actually be beneficial. IIT-JEE exam is the bext example. Most coaching institutions teach to the test. But, because of the high quality of the exam, the process of teaching to the test requires deep internalising of concepts and so on, which lead to better quality of education.

Overall, reforming board exams is one of the key levers of education reform. Given that it's operationally easy to do, it should be on the top of the agenda of education policy makers.

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