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CAUSE FOR COMFORT
- Examinations, results and other silly aberrations

As the results of the Board examinations for Class XII started flowing in, almost all other conversation came to a standstill in most urban families with children at school. Even such daily chores as watching soaps, cricket and even the football World Cup stood disrupted. And why not' These six weeks to a couple of months decide every year the future of hundreds of thousands of boys and girls. These results can spell upward social mobility or stagnancy for perhaps thousands of small families hanging precariously to a lifeline promised by one small scrap of certification.

The contestants are well advised to keep all their wits about them this time of the year. Every family knows the game their children have to play will be played on very uneven fields. So they go on red alert as soon as the results start coming in ' for who knows, even scores of 90 per cent may one day become pass' before you could say 'Well done'. And then most of those that managed just 89 percent must quickly re-examine battle plans, change tracks if necessary and rush to a different ball-game trying to beat the rest of the field to it. This might have remained only a passing nightmare like last year. This year, the spectre caught up with the haunted before your very eyes.

First let me talk about our lucky ones. This is the season of the flight of capital ' not of FDI for the stock exchanges, but budding human capital for Delhi colleges from all states of India and, on a small scale, from other places too. The hinterland of Delhi has spread out even to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and other friendly neighbours (someone even mentioned Dubai to me, though I have not confirmed this). Delhi has been on the world map for postgraduate and research studies for many years now. At the level of college education too, it looks like becoming a cosmopolitan centre of attraction.

Looking at the happy young faces of the successful performers on the screen always gives me a sense of renewal and makes me feel good even though the worried faces of the others intrude. The reason must be that there is so little happening around us today that can be called a cause for national celebration. The moral fabric is so worn out, it barely covers the body politic any longer. Curious characters have begun to appear and overrun our social life. Even in sports, which I think is the second principal channel of human capital formation, we are out of depth in nearly every discipline except cricket. Hockey, in which India was the world champion in my childhood, seems no longer within our grasp. The less said about football, the better. From the second decade of the last century, Indian footballers had played on equal terms with England's best. I remember even in the Forties when the British Services XI came to Calcutta with famous English internationals like Dennis Compton and others on it, it was still mostly a battle of equals. It is difficult to say what our ranking is now. We missed the list of 32 contenders for World Cup 2006 by a long shot.

Only the untarnished faces of our young achievers can console us now and rightly too. Fortunately, there is also another, a somewhat 'inverted', cause for celebration that I want to talk about. Take the case of high scores ' getting 'curiouser and curiouser' by the year. For lack of space, I take up only the most curious case of all: the highest marks in English was 100, many scored in the eighties and nineties.

Is it that our language papers have now only objective-type questions where the answers will fetch full marks or none' Are the questions so simple that you understand all sides of it at once' Let me give you a small extract from a much longer passage in a recent question in Core English. Judge for yourselves. 'Read the passage given below and answer the questions that follow:

'There are two problems which cause great worry to our educationists ' the problem of religious and moral instruction in a land of many faiths and the problem arising out of a large variety of languages.

Taking up the education of children, we see that they should be trained to love one another, to be kind and helpful to all, to be tender to the lower animals and to observe and think right. The task of teaching them how to read and write and to count and calculate is important, but it should not make us lose sight of the primary aim of moulding personality in the right way. For this, it is necessary to call into aid, culture, tradition and religion. But in our country, we have, in the same school, to look after boys and girls born in different faiths and belonging to families that live diverse ways of life and follow different forms of worship associated with different denominations of religion...We have to evolve a suitable technique and method for serving the spiritual needs of school children professing different faiths...It is not right for us in India to be dissuaded from this by considerations as to overtaking the young mind. What is necessary must be done. Any attempt to do away with or steamroll the differences through governmental coercion and indirect pressure would be as futile as it would be unwise...'

Write a summary of the above passage in about 80 words (3 marks)'.

I am not commenting here on whether this English was good or bad for learning Core English. The question that bothers me more is the following: Since this is very far from an objective-type question and you have only 3 marks to play with, what determines how many marks are to be awarded for a given answer' If the head examiner decides that a particular recap in 80 words is exactly the correct answer, then that turns a thinking question into an objective-type one. In that case the examination system fails ab initio. On the other hand, if it is left broadly to the judgement of the examiners (as it used to be in our examining days), what can possibly make one examiner feel sure that any given answer in 80 words, summarizing so complex a set of ideas, can be so perfect that it cannot possibly be improved upon and therefore must be awarded the full 3 marks' More importantly, how does she mark an answer slightly inferior in her judgment' And what about the judgment of other examiners' You will notice if one less-than-cock-sure examiner awards 2.5 (83 per cent) and not the full 3 and repeats the treatment for a few answers, the total can go way below the cut-off point of say 90 per cent for a high-profile college.

That, I firmly believe, is exactly what is happening. A wide spectrum of marks, say 80 to 100, is distributed almost randomly over answer papers that are mostly of the same category qualitatively. This will persist until quantitative marking is finally and firmly shown the door. But, in the meantime, one positive side of it might enthuse us a bit.

Instead of faithfully filtering talent, the high school examinations are systematically pushing small but rich streams of unrecognized talent out to fend for itself. As a result, a fair number of very good students ' some no worse than the ones that made it to the best colleges ' have been entering the other colleges for some years now. This is what a number of our own past students, now teachers in Delhi colleges, have been reporting regularly. This is raising the standards of these colleges and enthusing the teachers.

What is more, a fair number of talented students, rebuffed everywhere by the system, are taking to new subjects and hitherto out-of-bound areas including eventually starting small enterprises on their own. How I wish these 'failures' have the last laugh and then this silly systemic aberration would prove to have been not such a disaster after all.

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