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The Annual School-Leaving Drama

What purpose does a grade on a school-leaving examination serve? Does it certify the absolute ability of the student in question? Or does it testify the student’s abilities relative to others who appeared for the same examination?

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Photo Credit : hackmag.com,

The frenzied episode of Class XII board examination result announcements has played out yet again over the last couple of weeks, leading to the consequent display of the entire gamut of human emotion around the country. This has ranged from grand celebrations for students who managed the impossible score of 100% marks, to abjection among the relatively ‘unsuccessful’ ones. It is vexing, though, that the ranks of those perceiving themselves as being in this latter bucket increasingly includes students with scores as high as 90% plus. In CBSE alone, these students number nearly a lakh and will vie with thousands of others from ISC and the State Boards for the extremely scarce good quality seats in our country’s higher education institutions (HEIs). Faced with this situation, their choice of emotion is scarcely surprising.

The fundamental question

The situation begs the question – aside from its primary role as feedback on a student’s understanding of Class 12 subject matter, what purpose does a grade on a school-leaving examination serve? Does it certify the absolute ability of the student in question? Or does it testify the student’s abilities relative to others who appeared for the same examination? In an ideal world, both; currently, neither.

Speaking of absolute ability, it defies belief that across five examinations, a hundred thousand students truly emerged as knowing everything but 10% of what they learnt and wrote. Many HEI interviewers will tell you otherwise, and how! Add to that frequent admissions by students that they achieved a subject grade which was significantly higher than the number of marks they attempted in that examination, and seeing these scores as systematic representations of absolute ability becomes very difficult.

That leaves the question of relative ability. To use an analogy from economics, as with hyper-inflation, where a frenzied surge in money supply and prices leads to loss of confidence in the purchasing power of money, ‘grade inflation’ too has led to a clear disconnect between the grade and the underlying ability it certifies. This disconnect is compounded by the fact that Indian board curricula, even now, reward students for ‘remembering’ what they study, the lowest-ranked of the learning outcomes in Benjamin Bloom’s widely used taxonomy, and also one which is least needed in the real world. How, then, can one say that a student with 85% marks will perform worse at higher education, or a job, than the one who scored 95%? In fact, in my own experience in higher education over many years, I have consistently seen the exact opposite; when challenged to truly understand, apply and evaluate the knowledge they receive, the former cohort of Indian board students demonstrate superior ability than the latter.

Why inflate grades?

When it serves such little purpose, and often a counterproductive one, why do our boards – national as well as state – inflate grades artificially, almost ignoring the mathematical upper bound of 100%? An educated guess, and market dynamics in a poorly regulated setup points to competition among the boards as the underlying reason. This is not news – over the last decade, boards have clearly vied with each other to have their graduates leave school with higher and higher grades, and thus move on to greener higher education pastures, which in turn makes it more attractive for schools to affiliate itself with a particular board over another. 

What exacerbates this problem was well explained in a seminal 1973 research paper by Michael Spence, where he pointed out that asymmetric information leads employers and institutions to rely on an applicant’s education credentials as a ‘signal’ of ability. Since HEIs do not have perfect information about a school-leaving student’s grades, and since any asymmetry goes away only with long lags, strategies such as grade inflation by boards work for some time, until they erode the credibility of the signal.

What they also do is distort incentive structures in the education system. HEI after HEI has introduced entrance tests of its own (the next episode of the school-leaving drama), not least because of the unreliability of the ‘standardised’ board score attained by candidates. Parents who can afford international boards and curricula have shown a clear inclination to migrate their wards to them. And those who can’t have tended to emphasise Class 12 board marks above everything, in turn forcing students to sacrifice learning at the altar of any approach that promises to yield marks.

What now?

Given that poor learning habits don’t lead to rich outcomes in the world of work, the end result of this incentive structure is, ironically, systematically lower human capital formation and productivity, at a time when India remains the world’s fastest-growing major economy and stands poised to reap a demographic dividend. Acknowledging the mess, CBSE and other boards have paid much lip service in recent years to the idea of rolling back this grade inflation, or ‘scaling’ of marks. Little has changed on the ground, though, as each board waits for some other to blink. In the meantime, the beleaguered protagonist of this school-leaving drama – the student – continues to go from episode to episode and emotion to emotion.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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