Recently, the CBSE announced that the 10th std board exams for the academic year 2020–2021 have been cancelled. The statement added —

“The results of Class Xth Board will be prepared on the basis of an objective criterion to be developed by the Board. Any candidate who is not satisfied with the marks allocated to him/her on this basis will be given an opportunity to sit in an exam as and when the conditions are conducive to hold the exams.”

This resulted in a flurry of mixed responses from schools, teachers, and parents. Pressure is now mounting on the State Boards to cancel their board exams.  

For students, the cancellation of exams did not bring much relief. The vague statement about the declaration of results raised doubts about the admissions to “good” pre-university colleges (senior secondary school), the preparation for entrance examinations, and thereby, admissions to the top professional colleges a few years later. There is so much for these students to worry about! (Or, are they forced to worry?). Uncertainty is tougher to handle than the ordeal of preparing for exams and handling the pressure of expectations of people around.

All these thoughts around the cancellation of the board exams forced me to think about the value that these exams add. A couple of incidents that I could recollect added fuel to the fire:

2017–2018, Mumbai

I was a jury member in the finals of a national talent search conducted as a joint effort of two government bodies and one non-governmental agency. Teamwork & leadership skills were among the several criteria that students were evaluated on. Throughout the event, it was striking to see that younger students (6th — 8th grade) did exceptionally well in the team-based assessments as compared to the older ones (9th — 11th grade).

During the team presentations and the problem-solving sessions among the juniors, a few of the team members would be willing to take the back-seat, listen to each other, contribute their bit to the project and the final presentations would be uninterrupted with the other team members stepping in only when questions were asked. In contrast, every student among the seniors wanted to showcase their part within the team’s project and the presentations would often be broken and incoherent with the teammates themselves interjecting (mostly unnecessarily).

2020, Online Classroom (Lockdown)

One of the good things about the first lockdown was the amount of time it gave me to catch up with reading and teach online. I had started two courses titled ‘Mathematics & Science for Fun’ — one was for the students in high school and the second was for the students who had recently completed high school (that is, were entering 11th std). These classes were planned to be exploratory in nature allowing students to ask questions and intentionally digress quite a bit (something which wouldn’t be possible in a regular class).

In the course for the seniors, my sessions would usually get over much ahead of the scheduled closure. There would be limited questions raised by the attendees and there would be repeated requests for similar “problems” for practice. However, with the juniors, the sessions rarely ended on time — the questions just wouldn’t stop. Almost all the sessions would end with me saying, "I am not sure. Let me figure it out and we will discuss it in the next session." The participants were willing to spend a day or two just trying to crack one mathematical challenge I would throw at them. They enjoyed and preferred variety over the practice of the same type of problems.

Learning about combinatorics for the first time, the younger ones were even able to crack problems from JEE and Olympiads (although I did not mention the source). When the NEP 2020 was announced, they had so many questions about it that we had to plan for a separate session for the same.  

What changes the students’ behaviour and appetite for learning once they enter high school?

Is it the schools’ and parents’ focus on board exam results that drives these students to be self-centered, practice more, become worried about past years’ question papers and blueprints? Do board exams, and the preparation required, encourage students to be comfortable with the unknown and be problem-solvers? Are the board exam scores indicative of the students’ learning? What purpose does a 10th-grade certificate (in its current form) serve beyond being a proof of age and identity?

When will our system evolve to nurture and assess the students for their “co-scholastic” skills and values or the 21st-century skills? Isn’t it ironic that despite the fancy school buildings and international schools nurturing “global citizens of the 21st-century”, we don’t even have a systematic way of articulating a student’s learning?

I am sure that we would not be getting satisfactory answers to any of the questions above. Why, then, worry about the cancellation of the board exams? There is a long way to go for these exams to transform from “assessments of learning” to “assessments for learning” as envisioned in the NEP. A knee-jerk response of dumping these summative assessments altogether also wouldn’t serve the purpose.

I only wish that we use this opportunity to review the existing practices, experiment with contextually appropriate assessments and learn from each other’s experiences. These aren’t easy.

As a Chinese proverb goes —

"To get through the hardest journey we need to take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping."  

I hope that we put our hearts, heads, and hands together to take that first step.

Note: The article was first published on the author's personal blog. You can view it here.