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Kerala’s marks jihad exposes how our education system is badly trapped in numbers game

·7 min read

A statement by Professor Rakesh Kumar Pandey, who teaches physics at Delhi University, has sparked a new controversy in academia. He referred to the phenomenon of the Kerala Board giving 100 percent marks to its students in Class 12 as biased, and called it a "conscious and well-planned conspiracy to propagate Marxist ideology". Though some people might disagree or object to the term "Marks Jihad" coined by Pandey, the issue raised by him cannot be brushed under the carpet. A petition in the Delhi High Court challenging the excessive admission of students from the Kerala Board has also been filed by a Chennai-based student.

The allegation is further corroborated by looking at the number of students from Kerala Board taking admission in the most sought-after Honours courses €" Political Science, Sociology, History, Geography, Economics, Commerce, etc €" of some of the elite colleges of University of Delhi such as Hindu College, Ramjas College, Hansraj College, Kirori Mal College, Miranda House College and Shri Ram College of Commerce. For instance, Hindu College, in the political science stream, admitted 26 students in the course having 20 seats, just because they all had 100 percent marks from the Kerala Board.

Another important aspect that should draw our attention is that while 234 students of the Kerala Board have secured 100 percent marks and 18,510 students have got the highest A+ grade, only one student from CBSE Board has got 100 percent marks this year. Though the number of students appearing through CBSE is tens of times more than Kerala Board. Also, this year 700 students of Kerala Board alone have applied for Delhi University with 100 percent marks in the Best 4 (on the basis of which the cut off is determined), while the total applicants from Kerala Board are 4,824 with a majority of them having 98 percentile marks or above. The situation is heavily imbalanced in favour of students from Kerala Board and this trend has been on the rise in Delhi University over the last 3-4 years.

This promotes the culture of soaring high cutoffs; this year the cutoff for more than 30 courses of more than 10 colleges in DU was 100 percent. Many DU teachers have confirmed this "off the record". They have pointed out that the students scoring 100 percent marks have very little understanding of the subject and they face an "unprecedented communication crisis" in the classroom due to a lack of understanding of both English and Hindi. Perhaps that is the reason why students who get 100 percent marks from Kerala Board face difficulty in passing Delhi University examinations. These facts make the evaluation system at the school level highly questionable.

Delhi University is a Central university. Students of every state and board of the country have the right to seek admission in it. No one can be neglected or deprived on the basis of region, religion or board. But it is equally true that no one should get the unwarranted advantage of studying from a board or being a resident of a particular state because this results in curbing the rights of other eligible candidates. Example being the students of Uttar Pradesh Board who have been the victims of the strict evaluation system.

The board in contention is playing with the future of the young generation of the state and its constitutional obligations. This will lead to following of similar practices by other boards as well. By giving maximum marks, the board will ensure maximum number of its students getting admission in reputed institutes of the country like Delhi University. This will further push the education and the evaluation system on the descending path. Of course, the students cannot be blamed for this.

Though the recent controversy may be centred around Kerala Board or students coming from that state, for almost a decade now, the trend of liberal evaluation and highly inflated marks has been visible in the Central Board of Secondary Education as well as most state boards. This situation is indeed worrisome. The increasing importance of marksheet in studying, teaching, and life in general has resulted in many unwarranted challenges.

First, it has taken away the joy of teaching. As the process has invariably become mechanical where focus is on getting marks rather than learning and understanding. This has inadvertently put immense pressure and stress on the students. Over the years, board exams (especially Class XII board exams) have become a petrifying experience for both children and their parents. Securing good marks is considered equitable to conquering the fort.

If a student is not able to perform well in these exams, the parents start to worry about their future and consider it to be bleak. Parents tend to goad their children into becoming marks-securing machines as they consider these numbers as an assurance of road to success and possibilities, and also as an enhancer in their social standing. Parents are treating their children as a means to overcome their life's failures and unfulfilled dreams. The burden of their high expectations and pressure often results in making children end up as victims rather than success stories.

Rote learning is the dominant paradigm or model of education in India and this is a big problem. There is no leisure or opportunity for the development of creativity, critical thinking and analytical ability in this number-centred arrangement. An entire generation is in the grip of this rat race. Lily Tomlin said it best: "The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat."

It is quite ironic that the success or failure in the board exams justifies the standards of parenting. Nobody bothers about the holistic development of a child's social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning, and which will in future make him/her a good person and a better citizen. The attention and goal of parents, society, educational institutions and government is to register maximum marks on the child's marksheet.

With the increasing importance of marks, parents, teachers, schools and the students themselves are under tremendous pressure of unrealistic expectations. This has led to the surge in mental disorders like anxiety, psychiatric problems, depression and the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among the students. The perverse competition to get maximum marks has robotised the students, parents and teachers. Hundreds of students are getting 100 percent marks in every board.

Students who score 100 percent or around, take pride in their own omniscience. They no longer feel the necessary push that drives them forward to learn or do anything new. Clearly, this is a deplorable situation and needs to be fixed immediately. For this, a level-playing, inclusive and uniform evaluation system will have to be implemented across the country. Continuity and integrity are the cornerstones for a fair and transparent evaluation system.

Recently, the Ministry of Education has approved the proposal of the National Testing Agency (NTA) to conduct a centralised entrance examination for admission to all central universities. Although this will solve the problem to some extent, it would also promote a culture of coaching and rote learning. It is, therefore, necessary to devise ways and means by which children, especially from far-flung villages and poor strata of the society, are equally able to participate in this entrance examination. Also, there is a need for wide expansion of quality and affordable higher education to protect the interest of these students. Along with this, there is also a need to promote higher education in the mother tongue as this will ensure quality education reaching more students.

The author is Dean, Students' Welfare, Central University of Jammu. Views expressed are personal.

Also See: NTA launches National Aptitude Test 2021 for students aged 13 to 25; all you need to know

BHU UET 2021: NTA revises exam dates for two papers; check details here

NEET UG 2021: Application correction window open till 13 October; check details here

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