Are Board Exams Best Judge of Student’s Ability? Time to Bust Some Deep-seated Myths


It is a known fact that schools in India give far greater importance to exams than to learning. The impasse caused by COVID-19 has made this realisation more acute — one simply has to do a quick frequency count of news related to exams as against news related to learning in the media. Unfortunately, however, the discussion around exam is more about mechanics of testing rather than its relationship with the nature of learning or teaching that has happened over the past two years. The message that one gets loud and clear is: exams must happen irrespective of whether learning happens or not! Even on those occasions that they got cancelled, it was due to the threat to life posed by the coronavirus and not because their own credibility was in question when learning had got severely disrupted in schools.

One quick look at our school education system will reveal that it is examination-centric, where exams rule the roost – where almost all of a student’s school years are geared towards preparation of terminal exams culminating in the dreaded but equally revered board exams! This journey is less a celebration of one’s several years of schooling/organised learning but linked more to the fear of failing, which is again linked to denial of rewards like admission to college, jobs etc. The famous American philosopher and educator John Holt once said, examination is one big racket where one tries to test what a student does not know rather than what they know. Let us try to examine a few central myths associated with examinations.

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Examinations are integral to learning and without exams there is no learning.

One may like to believe that examinations are fundamental to learning but this is a deeply problematic idea. One is constantly learning both inside and outside structured learning environments. In the real world outside school, there are no exams or paper-pencil test but one is still learning, without necessarily being conscious of it. In schools, that’s not the case and one does need to provide a structure to students’ learning experiences.

However, to believe that desire to succeed/avoid failure in exam is the single most determinant of learning is worrisome or perhaps exaggerated. The prime example of this belief is removal of the non-detention provision from the Right to Education Act, 2009. This provision proposed that children even on failing in internal assessment till class eighth would not be detained/made to repeat the class. The objective behind this provision was to prevent/curtail the dropout of those children from school who essentially belonged to the disadvantaged sections of society and on failing in exams felt humiliated and dejected, eventually dropping out from the school. However, most people including education officials, ministers in charge of education portfolios in their states, teachers and parents strongly believed that if this fear of failure is removed from children’s lives, they will not learn.

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Linked to this is another myth that board examinations are the best judge of students’ ability, learning and competence.

It is the externality or public nature of board exams that make them appear to be impartial and objective. The central idea behind exams is that there is no scope for any kind of favouritism or partiality as neither examiner nor the examinees know each other. The flip side of this belief is that subjectivity in assessment is considered to be undesirable and more importantly, the message that it conveys is that teachers cannot be trusted and thereby their biases will inevitably creep in if they evaluate those students’ performance who they know. The basic corollary to this idea is that you end up evaluating students you know nothing about as compared to teachers who have taught them, been with them for a while and perhaps know and understand them best.

The question which should come to one’s mind is: how can an exam consider all children alike when they are from different socio-economic backgrounds and have been to schools which are significantly different from each other? Despite the fact that students belong to different worlds in terms of their economic, social and cultural capital, exposure and education opportunities and life chances in general, a common yardstick in the form of a board exam is used to evaluate their performance and more importantly distribute limited rewards. The irony of it all is that almost everyone including the students who have to bear the brunt of these inequitable opportunities regard exam results as a product of their individual merit and effort and therefore, fair.

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The third myth is that if a student is good, it will automatically show up in their performance in the exams.

It is quite possible that a student is good but does poorly in exam and vice-versa. All exams require a certain strategy to be cracked. This is reflected in the fact that school teachers spend a lot of time and effort in helping students achieve more marks by projecting their learning in a certain manner and catching the examiner’s attention. This also explains the mushrooming and importance of coaching centres and guide books whose job is to help students prepare for exams and not to enhance their learning! Learning and performing, albeit related, are two separate things.

With the focus of these exams being on objective, standardised, measurable and comparable performance, assessment not only acquires a mechanical dimension to it but also changes the meaning of learning to something visible, measurable and comparable. Anything which is not thus loses its significance and is not regarded as being worthy of learning.

The fact that exams play a crucial role in selecting and eliminating aspirants from the race towards greater mobility, success etc. needs to be acknowledged upfront. This role becomes more important in a stratified society where the number of aspirants outnumber opportunities available. There have been numerous committees set up to look into examination reforms and research studies highlighting the enormous stress that children have to go through, but we don’t seem to learn any lessons from there. Our obsession with public examination as the be all and end all of school education comes at a huge cost. But is anyone listening?

ALSO READ | Board Exams Must be Scrapped Permanently. It’s the Only Way to Fix an Exam-obsessed Education System

The author is Professor and Dean, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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