When a student with 70 per cent marks in a school-leaving examination cannot be admitted to any college, surely something is amiss? Apparently not, because more children than in the previous years have got marks above 90 per cent — 3.5 per cent in the Central Board of Secondary Education alone — and that should be reason for celebration. But the picture is too confusing for that. For one, there are more than one board of examinations, and the systems of questioning and marking are different for each. Hence, one board’s generosity with marks may push the others towards a similar big-heartedness, but that would make nonsense of the different standards of assessment. Besides, playing catch-up will still leave many good students of the other boards behind because, with a different style of questions, even competing big-heartedness cannot go beyond reasonable limits. More, if so many children deserve over 90 per cent, what is to be made of complaints from academics and educational experts about the weak foundations of language, reasoning and expression that students display nowadays?
The quick answer to this is that ‘objective’ questions are favoured over ‘long-answer’ ones, because that is the short-cut to more marks. In other words, learning by rote is privileged over reasoning and organization; naturally children do not learn to think or to express themselves, whatever their marks may say. Behind all this lies an obdurate misconception about learning in general and school-training in particular. Combined with the political need to push more pupils through school and also flaunt their ‘brilliant’ results, this has created an environment devastating to both learning and assessment. The logical solution would be to make marking relative, that is, adopt the percentile method. That would be fairer, given there are such vast numbers of school-leaving children and so many examination boards. Together with some changes in the style of questions, it could also herald a return of steadier standards of assessment.