TOPIC – Secure the Classroom

“Let school teachers and school staff jump vaccine line, rethink board exams: cancelling shouldn’t be the only response to crisis”

The Central Board of School Education (CBSE) has cancelled the Class X board examinations for this year, and postponed the Class XII board exams. Given the grave challenge from the swift surge in coronavirus infections, this was inevitable. To herd lakhs of students to examination centres across the country over several days in the midst of the second wave would have risked a serious public health challenge. The decision — that has set off similar moves by state boards — brings relief to parents and students but leaves lakhs of Class XII students in uncertainty about what next. It also raises a formidable challenge for schools and teachers to redefine their assessment for a gateway exam that leads to higher education. In a system so deeply stratified and where the digital divide has deepened inequalities and vulnerabilities during a pandemic year — with many parents bearing its economic brunt as well — the task is more fraught. As they work on this, schools also need to reach out and hand-hold students through this period of anxiety. What will surely help is if vaccines are promptly made available to school teachers and school staff regardless of their age. Given that the Covid curve is unpredictable, a safe classroom is a vital step forward in protecting and empowering children both in pedagogy and well-being. That said, this is also the kind of crisis that the education establishment must not waste. For a long while now, it has been amply clear: The system of board exams is broken and in need of urgent reform. To subject lakhs of students to the immense pressure of a “make-or-break” test — the only metric that will matter in 15 years of schooling — is an outdated choice with diminishing returns. This form of standardised assessment measures a questionable idea of ability, has normalised a regime of unreasonably inflated marks, and pushed thousands of students into anxiety and failure. The CBSE has done well to cancel the Class X test but the question remains: Can the Class XII boards, the results of which determine students’ future in higher education, be reimagined? The National Education Policy, 2020, which has a host of valuable suggestions on evaluation reforms, certainly thinks so. Instead of one test (to be taken by all board students at the same time), it proposes an array of round-the-year assessments and credits, from classwork and internal tests to a common entrance examination. Some of this, of course, implies trusting teachers and schools with greater autonomy to assess students — and attest that they have learnt enough to earn a basic school-leaving certificate. Higher educational institutions, instead of filtering applications mechanically, must also respond to this crisis by coming up with more imaginative ways of engaging with college applications, rather than reduce a student to her marksheet. The education system has responded to the pandemic’s challenge by adopting the disruption from classroom to screen. To further secure it, it must break the tyranny of the board examination.