Exclusive: How CBSE, ISC Cheated You by Moderating Marks Unfairly
An irrational system of moderating board marks meant that our college admissions were flawed. Will 2017 change that?
For years, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) deprived students of a fair marking system by unequally ‘moderating’ their Class 12 board marks. Thanks to an irrational and flawed system of ‘standardisation’, students were awarded differing increases in their marks. The ‘moderation’ varied from subject to subject and from one student to the next.
The result: While CBSE was perceived as a high-scoring board, the faulty marking system turned the college admission process, that relied on these marks, into a farce.
After this reporter’s data-driven investigation in June 2016 exposed the rot within the CBSE and the ISC’s marking methods, the boards were forced to introspect. They also consulted the Union HRD Ministry. In April 2017, came a landmark announcement.
The CBSE declared that, beginning 2017, ‘moderation’ would end. Making similar assurances were 31 other boards from across the country, including the CISCE, which administers the ISC examinations.
But how exactly did the CBSE cheat its students of a fair marking system? And what gave their secret away?
The Rise of the 95 – How One Mark Exposed the CBSE
In an extensive investigation into the CBSE’s marking systems, multiple data scientists independently accessed and analysed marks awarded by the board to students across India. Under scrutiny were the CBSE Class 12 board marks from 2004 to 2016.
Discrepancies in data analysis showed that something was terribly wrong with the way CBSE was marking its exams.
The problem lay in the number 95.
The graph below represents the total number of times each mark (from 0 to 100) was awarded in a particular year.
For example, if you hover over the 60 mark, the number that pops up on your screen is the number of times students scored 60 in the CBSE Class 12 exams that year. So, in 2016, the number 60 was awarded over 57,000 times, all subjects combined.
Now look at the spike at the 33 mark. Every year, it towers over other marks. Why? Because 33 is the pass mark in the CBSE exams and the spike at 33 is a result of the board’s policy of aiding students who fall short by a few marks. If those scoring 30, 31 and 32 are bumped up to 33 to make them pass, the total number of people scoring 33 will naturally be very high.
Now, notice the 95 mark.
Strike you as odd? Why is 95 awarded many more times than all other marks? Year after year, from 2011 to 2016, why is 95 a skyscraper, way taller than any number next to it?
Not just in overall figures, the 95 bias is seen in individual subjects as well. Take a look at the subject-wise marking patterns of the 2016 CBSE Class 12 results.
From Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics,...
...to Business Studies, Accounts and Economics, 95 is always the most-awarded mark.
In History, Geography and Political Science too, the 95 ‘skyscraper’ is taller than most of the others.
So, what does this clear bias in favour of 95 indicate?
Dheeraj Sanghi, professor at IIT-Kanpur, explains:
The moderation of marks is done in a way that many students score 95. In reality they have scored 94, 93, 92, 91, etc. But all of them have been bunched with 95. This is unfair because different students have been given different increases in marks.
But why the obsession with 95? In a discussion following the exposé on CNN-News18 in June 2016, former exam controller for the CBSE, Pavnesh Kumar, unwittingly admitted the board’s flawed system while attempting to defend it.
“Those in the know can tell you that this is because the limit for a moderated score has been fixed by the board as 95. Those who have 80, if you give them 15 moderation marks, they will get 95. Anybody with 85, give them 10 moderation marks, they go to 95. But a moderated score cannot go beyond 95.”
Kumar’s defence stressed on the need to stop moderation at some mark. Because if an 80 was increased by 15 to 95, a 90 couldn’t be increased similarly to 105. Strangely, Kumar refused to admit that increasing different students’ marks by different amounts was an unequal and unfair practice.
He argued, “It is unfair to say that those scoring 95 without moderation are losing out, because their scores are not being reduced. Only the marks of those below 95 are being raised."
But is it fair to put students scoring 95 on par with students scoring less? Especially when college admissions hinge on as little a difference as half a percent.
Consider students A and B. Let us assume they have exams in two subjects which will determine their college admissions.
In subject 1, student A scores 95 and B gets 85. But B’s 85 is moderated to 95 while A’s mark stays at 95.
In subject 2, A scores 95 and B scores 96.
A now has 95 and 95. B now has 95 and 96. Thanks to ‘moderation’ A loses a college seat to B. Without moderation A was 9 marks ahead of B.
That, multiplied over several subjects and lakhs of students is the extent of the unfairness of CBSE’s moderation policies.
The 95 spike has been observed across 10 of the 12 most-studied subjects of the CBSE, every year since 2008. Interestingly, CBSE does not seem to apply the same policies of moderation to ‘optional subjects’ such as Hindi Core, Physical Education, Home Science and even Computer Science.
Take a look at the difference in the graphs yourself. The 95 spikes are not to be seen, the data is more evenly distributed, even in the 90s.
But the CBSE is not the only board that has been unfairly manipulating the marks of its students. The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE), which administers the ISC Class 12 board examinations, is also guilty of unequal ‘standardisation’ of marks.
ISC, Where Are the Missing Numbers?
In the ISC examinations of 2016, not a single student across the country scored 91 or 93 in any paper. Nor was there anyone who scored an 81, 82, 84, 85, 87 or 89 – in any subject. Between the pass mark 40 and the maximum possible 100, there are 24 numbers that were not scored by even a single candidate!
This phenomenon – of those exact 24 numbers not being scored by any student in any paper – has repeated itself every year from 2012 to 2016. For all the five years that we have been able to source and analyse data, the ISC has not awarded these 24 marks to any candidate. Despite having thousands of candidates.
Is this possible without an unfair system of ‘standardisation’? No way, say multiple data scientists The Quint posed the question to.
Why Tamper With Marks at All?
It was only after the CBSE and ISC were comprehensively exposed through irrefutable data analysis that the boards chose to address this practice of unfair moderation. But why did boards indulge in such large-scale fudging of marks in the first place?
Ashok Ganguly, former chairperson of the CBSE, complains that it was a result of the competitiveness between the two major national boards, the CBSE and the ISC.
Unhealthy competition between CBSE and ISC resulted in the ever-increasing inflation of marks. It is a serious disease that ruined our evaluation system. As the CBSE scraps moderation of marks this year, it is imperative that ISC does so too.
Sunirmal Chakravarthi, former Principal of the ISC-affiliated school La Martiniere For Boys, Kolkata, concurs,
The inflation of marks was done for commercial reasons and not academic ones. Of course, college admissions too became unfair as a result.
Chakravarthi refers to the desirability of a board being heavily dependent on how “high-scoring” it is. For parents looking to admit their children to school, the choice of Board is a crucial deciding factor. As ‘high-scoring’ Boards are viewed favourably by parents, Boards end up inflating marks to meet those expectations.
Though Board authorities have announced the scrapping of 'moderation’, school principals and students are still concerned.
Mukta Nain, Principal of the CBSE-affiliated Birla High School for Boys in Kolkata, told The Quint, “If moderation is to be stopped, we have to ensure that all Boards do it. If only CBSE does it, then my students will be disadvantaged for no fault of their own.”
The consensus to cancel ‘moderation’ came as late as 24 April 2017. By then, several Boards had finished conducting their exams and marking was underway.
So will all exam Boards manage to act in unison as promised and correct the wrongs of ‘moderation’ and ‘standardisation’? Or will some play spoilsport and queer the pitch for 2017’s college admissions?
Watch this space for more.
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