A Trial By Fire

This article first appeared in the Hindu on June 19.

What does the cancellation of Class 12 board exam mean for students? And what can the CBSE do to ensure a fair assessment of a student’s overall performance?

“Hey dude, what is Newton’s Second Law?”

“I’m a Science student; not a Law student”

“Ah! COVID batch!”

This is both funny and harsh, but memes apart, it’s tough being the Covid Batch. First, just spending your last school year at home missing out on the bossing around, the making and breaking of rules and history, and the leadership opportunities you have worked for. Then there was the endless wait for the board exams to be rescheduled and, finally, the cancellation.

Not that there was any alternative. “Not doing the Class 12 boards is one of the best decisions we have made,” says Rekha Krishnan, Principal of Vasant Valley School in Delhi, “else this would have been another super-spreader event.”

But what are the implications of this for the students? 

Class 12 results formula

Last week, the CBSE declared its 30:30:40 formula as an “objective system” of arriving at the Class 12 results. Here is a quick analysis of what works — and what doesn’t — in this formula.

Problem 1: Any weightage given to Class 10 scores is unfair to students whose performance increased dramatically after those board exams when they chose subjects they liked and dropped those that didn’t work for them. “It is wrong to reward or punish a child on the same performance twice, “ says Krishnan. Why should a kid who messed up Class X boards suffer a poor grade in Class 12 because of that?

Problem 2: Grade 11 scores are often not representative since students are dealing with a giant leap in conceptual difficulty in some subjects like Science, and with totally new concepts in other subjects like Sociology, Psychology and Accounts. “The data we have shows that, on an average, a student’s marks make a leap of around 20–25% over their Class 11 scores,” says Vishnu Karthik, director of The Heritage Group of Schools. The worst part is that several students take Class 11 lightly, knowing that these grades don’t count. Giving these marks 30% weightage without any warning seems unfair.

Problem 3: Inconsistent internal scores across schools and potential grade inflation. “Unlike international curricula, CBSE schools aren’t subjected to rigorous assessment audits and statistical moderations. Just look at the inordinate high grades students achieve in Class 12 internal practical exams,” points out Karthik. 

On another note, since internal exams were not pitched as final assessments, many schools followed the standard practice of tough papers with strict marking schemes. “Most schools like to challenge their students and train them by setting exams more difficult than the typical board exam. Further, most students put in their best efforts a couple of months before the final board exams. As a result, historical data shows that the performance is significantly better in the board exams than in the internal school exams,” says Sanghamitra Ghosh, former principal of Mother’s International School.

The saving grace

CBSE’s master stroke to balance these issues out is using a historical reference to anchor these scores. This means that the school must roughly map its current scores to its previous Class 12 scores in whichever of the last three years’ board exams it performed best. “For each subject, the school will have to follow a broad distribution of marks, which will be based on the performance of the specific year by that school in that subject. The subject-wise marks assessed by the school for 2020-2021 should be within a range of +/- 5 marks obtained by the students in the school in the subject in the reference year. However, the overall average marks for the school assessed in 2020-2021, for all the subjects, should not exceed the overall average marks obtained by the school by two marks in the specific reference year,” states the tabulation policy.

This process makes it possible for the newly constituted “result committees” in each school to use internal grades to map student performance relative to each other and then use the historical anchors to scale the final results to board-level marks. What could make this system fairer is to reduce the dependence on Class 10 scores by allowing schools to take a “best of three” subjects from Class 10, including any continuing subjects like English.

Impact on college admissions

Conditional admissions abroad: Many students have received “conditional” admissions from colleges in the U.K. and Canada, subject to achieving a certain aggregate percentage in their boards. Predictably, though, foreign universities have reassured students that they will be “flexible” in handling any delay in declaring results. For the U.K. universities, the UCAS suggests on its official page, “If you have a conditional firm/insurance set already, the University would have until around the September 14, 2021” to close their offers. Most universities will use this wide window to give student time to share their final grades. The delay will impact their visa processes, though, and some students may end up doing their first college month/semester online though colleges in the U.K. have started on-campus classes. Most Canadian universities have gone a step further in processing the “conditions” of their admission offers by suggesting that conditional admissions would be revoked only in case of a “drastic” fall in grades. “We recognise that students in India are unable to complete board exams,” says Bianca Tuazon, recruiter from the University of British Columbia. “The university will no longer require final Class 12 exam results. Instead, we have confirmed students’ offer using their pre-board results or marksheets, and have issued new offer letter with conditions removed.”

Cut-off based college admissions in India: Most national and state universities like Delhi University, Kolkata University and Mumbai University use Class 12 marks for admissions. A Central Universities Common Entrance Test (CUCET) is being considered to replace this dependence on board marks. The CUCET committee has submitted its report to the Education Ministry but a decision is pending. If a CUCET is conducted for this batch, it will be tough with no past tests and results to be guided by. Students already exhausted by the long wait for the boards will now need to switch energies to a new testing system. But at least it will provide a common platform for all students to be judged on.

What this means for future CBSE batches

These two years have exposed the weakness of a board-exam system quite clearly. “The boards place undue weightage on one exam so that students are not bothered about internal exam results and everyone — colleges, parents, even distant family members — want to know the Class 12 board results,” says Krishnan. International curricula like IGCSE and IB, on the other hand, offer numerous formative assessments over Classes 11 and 12 that allow a student to study steadily and even out any “bad luck” performance in one exam. Their final results, thus, provides a fairer prediction of a student’s academic potential than one single board exam. But, as Karthik points out, “Unlike other international curricula, the CBSE has not invested in valid and reliable internal year-round assessment. In the CBSE, there is not much correlation between internal and final external exams.” Perhaps this is a wake-up call to invest in a system of internal assessment and audits that leads to a fair assessment of a student’s overall performance and reduce the pressure at the end of the school year.

Finally, to return to the meme at the beginning. Is this really going to be a poorly educated batch? One with less knowledge gleaned from online classes and a botched-up assessment system? Krishnan disagrees, “These students have a huge advantage over others. They have almost been through a trial by fire, learning to constantly respond to life. Today, you can find Newton’s Second Law from Google but the life lessons this kind of experience gives them far outweighs their losses in learning static concepts.”

If the COVID batch is ready to face the fire, then the CBSE should give them the best starting point by mapping this years’ results to good results in previous batches; by allowing those with the stamina to study to take alternative exams to better their scores; by encouraging universities to conduct a simple CUCET that tests skills rather than knowledge. And, perhaps, by rethinking the whole system of assessments for the batches to come.

3 thoughts on “A Trial By Fire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *