Opinion: Without Board Exams, How Colleges Will Seek To Decide Admission

The Prime Minister on June 1, 2021 announced that the Class 12 CBSE board exams stand cancelled. Many other boards have followed suit. This is a welcome move because the safety and health of students is of paramount importance.

Two things come to mind immediately.

First, the long period of uncertainty could have been shortened drastically if only government policy advisors had been more alert to the warnings of the second Covid surge delivered in November 2020.  Instead, between February and April, precious time was wasted apparently hoping that the second wave would magically disappear. Just before the second wave hit, we were of course in a state of denial, believing that the battle against Covid-19 was already won, and hence we would only need to delay the exams, usually held in March, by a few days or weeks.

Second, if vaccine production, procurement and distribution had been planned wisely and equitably, we could have considered the possibility of fully-vaccinated students appearing for in-person exams, within manageable timelines, a possibility captured precisely by this tweet.

Acknowledging the likelihood of a second wave could have prodded the government and boards to engage intelligently with the examination issue earlier, when the wave was at its initial stage. We would, in that case, have been better prepared with viable options after discussions between all stakeholders. But now, many pertinent decisions related to this cancellation, including how Indian colleges should decide which students to admit, will be debated hurriedly, even as universities and colleges wait for the "well-defined objective criteria" to be revealed soon by the different boards.

The challenge that has to be overcome now is how to create a set of "assessed marks" (or "predicted grades") with which a student will graduate  from school, and which will be used for admission to colleges. Many schemes are under consideration. The idea is to use some combination of the marks obtained in internal assessments during the year, the marks of the final exams for Class XI, and even the marks obtained in Class X board exams. Many issues can be anticipated right away, irrespective of which scheme is finally adopted.

The first problem is that marking schemes for school exams vary not just from board to board, but even within the same board, from school to school, and from region to region. There are schools, irrespective of the board they are affiliated to, which mark too stringently at the school level, assuming that will goad students to do better in the all-crucial board exams. But there are also schools which mark liberally to give students a confidence boost ahead of board exams. Then, there are schools in remote regions where the quality of marking is completely at variance with their city counterparts. In normal circumstances, the board exams level some of these differences. It will be impossible to address the effect of these factors in any scheme that the boards employ to generate "assessed grades".

Second, with online classes being the primary mode of instruction during the past year, the divide between affluent and poor schools has become glaring. Teachers and students in under-resourced schools often do not have proper access to digital platforms. In contrast, affluent schools and students  have no such limitations. All of this will be reflected in the internal class assessments and pre-board exams. Poorer schools were always disadvantaged in many ways, compared to affluent ones, but this is a double whammy which will affect any scheme.

Third, it is a given that the performance of students will have been documented by different schools to different extents. Some schools may now try to cover up by fabricating marks where no or poor records are maintained. It is well-known that in many boards, internal assessment marks for projects and practicals are allocated liberally to enhance school results (the presence of an external examiner is not always a deterrent). However, such allocations are of the order of 20-30%. In the current scenario, where schools have to submit the total marks, and not a small proportion, it will be very tempting to dole out high marks generously for the school's results to look good. How much these practices will contaminate internal marks is anybody's guess. Concerns of this kind have already been voiced with respect to assessed scores for Class X.

There is a wide array of marking systems that exist across boards. ICSE, CBSE and state boards are exam-dominated boards which focus more on reproduction of information and facts or learning by rote. The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and International Baccalaureate (IB) boards use essays, projects and regular assignments, focussing more on analytical and application skills. For the latter, the board exam is just another factor, hence they will be able to provide a final score (1, 2) which is more representative compared to the ones provided by averaging schemes of other boards. If only our dominant national boards such as CBSE and ICSE, as well as the numerous state boards, had adopted similar curricula and marking schemes, they would have been in a much better situation to predict representative grades. This debate about making examinations less important, and the curricula less rote-based, has been waged over decades now; the New Education Policy (NEP-2020) has yet again promised to change things for the better.

It's vital to minimize the amount of randomness that will manifest itself in the assessed scores. Simple and transparent schemes work best as it is easy to universalize them, they contain the least amount of statistical noise, and everything is open. Therefore, the marks of the Class XI final exams, plus those from the Class XII internal pre-boards should be used, and perhaps scores from a midterm exam. It is not logical to use the Class X board exam marks as one of the inputs because of the great difference in the difficulty levels of the syllabi as compared to class XII; also, students may have shifted streams after the class X, e.g. Science to Commerce. Other internal assessments may not have been carried out by many schools so it is best to avoid them. This may also be a good opportunity to use a system of letter grades (1, 2) to smoothen arbitrary differences in marks and reduce the obsession with numbers and "topping".

Universities and institutions admitting students using Class XII marks will now have to make merit lists based on these estimated scores. Unfortunately, even in normal times, the correlation between scores and academic ability has always been questioned; in the current situation, this is even more questionable for all the reasons mentioned above. The possibility of universities conducting their own entrance exams - as some Vice-Chancellors seem to be confident of doing - or giving 50% weightage to the newly-proposed Central University Common Entrance Test (CUCET) seems remote even as far  ahead as October 2021. Such confidence ignores the high probability of another Covid wave, evolution of new Coronavirus mutants, and  the low vaccination rate; all this will, for all practical purposes, ensure that no group and in-person examination can be held in the next few months. After that, it will be too late to start a new academic session. The government must also eliminate the anxiety associated with whether entrance examinations (NEET, JEE etc) will be held or not at the earliest.

Finally, if we are indeed forced to use only these assessed grades for admissions to universities and institutes, it will be good to deploy additional metrics whenever possible. Typical filters could be the evaluation of statements of purpose, letters of recommendations, short online assignments, and even interviews. In some cases, the numbers may be daunting but this may be a  golden opportunity to start doing something different, something which nucleates a more authentic way of evaluating students. The limitations that come to light in doing this will also demonstrate to policy-makers how desperate is the need to revamp our educational system, put in more resources and hire more teachers.

(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay. Anshu Deshmukh is ex-Principal of a school in Indore and is presently working in the field of mental health.)

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