When I was in class 10, I asked my parents to hire a tutor for me. Everyone in my class had one, I argued, I must need one too. My parents, at the time both professors in Delhi University, were amused by my insistence. They found a neighbour who liked teaching math and sent me to her for an hour every day. For science, I would go to a well-known local tutor who taught students in batches of 10, thrice a week.
Back in 2004, board exams were "easier" than now--getting a 90% meant you're likely to be one of the top students in your school, and an 80% was respectable. The "average" students would hover around a 65-70%. Tuition was not "essential", and classmates who had tutors before high school would hide the information, embarrassed that they would be "outed" as poor students.
Now, my neighbour's twelve-year-old daughter has six tutors, and her parents are worried that her "extracurriculars" are not enough to bag her a college admission--she studies classical Indian dance, pottery, and western classical music. A 90% in class 10 board exams does not guarantee you will get the stream of your choice for the next two years, and does not guarantee you admission in top colleges.
And now the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations's decision to introduce board exams for ICSE students in class 5 and 8 is the latest addition to the already-stressful life of being a student in India. The council's chief executive Gerry Arathoon's reassurances that the new system is aimed at evaluating teachers rather than students sound hollow.
"The primary objective is to assess how the students are being taught," he said in a press conference on Wednesday. "Each of our student is expected to acquire a certain level of knowledge and reasoning ability at every stage. We want to see whether the students have reached the desired levels in Class 5 and Class 8."
You have to be naive to believe that any kind of examination would not add to the burden of these students. The written tests and assessment would be different from board exams in class 10 and 12, Arathoon has claimed. "Students will not need any preparation. They will not have to recall what they have learnt. Instead, they will be required to apply their knowledge and skills to solving problems. They will need to think creatively according to their age."
There are many ways to evaluate teaching methods and a centralised test for 10-year-olds is hardly a foolproof solution. One also has to remember the way examinations are understood and treated in our society. Any exam is treated as a cause for great anxiety for the entire family of the pupil, who is often tortured by the fear of failing several people by underperforming in these tests.
Even as adults, hundreds of students often don't get to choose the stream of academics they'd like to pursue. They often have to settle for socially endorsed subjects for higher studies and even the choice of subjects at times is ridiculously gendered by people around them. In a society such as this, another 'board exam' is only likely to send parents into a tizzy, further burdening students with the pressure to get ahead in the rat race.
It has been argued for several experts on education that board exams are not always an indicator of a students' aptitude or overall learning. Moreover, it's difficult to fathom how testing students -- with different areas of strengths and weaknesses -- will be a clear indicator of the proficiency of the teacher who taught them.
Not only will these exams worry parents who already know how even nursery admissions are a race, it will force children to spend more time doing independent study post an eight-hour school day. It will reduce time for them to follow creative pursuits that have nothing to do with school, or exams, or the race to a 'Career'.
From age 10--and perhaps even earlier--these children will be trained to score well in exams, compete with their classmates, and grow up with the idea that this is what life is about.
That means lesser time to come up with mindless games with friends, fewer hours spent reading comics and exchanging fantastical ideas that only occur to children, and no time to just do nothing at all--a leisure you have usually when you are a kid or happily retired.
By the time I was done with my last board exam in class 12, I was ready to never appear for a centrally-administered test again. The excitement of being "a real grown up" and being pampered as I prepared for the "big test" lost its novelty pretty quickly as I realised what I did in three hours could not define me or what I learnt as I grew to be a young adult.
As we race towards making our children more "competent", are we losing the chance for them to be truly carefree?
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