The Curious Case of Scoring 100/100 in the English Exam
How can 100 percent be even possible or considered desirable, in English, asks Ajay Mankotia.
When I took the All India Higher Secondary Board Exams (those days Class XI) in 1974, the student who topped the English paper in India scored 165/200 (82.5 percent).
Today, the marks would have ordinarily translated to, assuming the question paper remaining similar, to 92 percent.
With more and more students appearing in the Boards, schools (barring a few) metamorphosing from educational institutions to coaching centers, and with the number of seats in colleges growing at a sluggish pace, there is a huge pressure to do well. With schools providing an enabling environment, more and more students are excelling in exams. Consequently, the marks have been moving north.
The Curious Case of the English Paper
These days, 92 percent marks in English would be considered ‘average’. This is because marks in English have moved to 98 percent and beyond – with some students even scoring a spotless, and unheard of, 100 percent.
A 98 percent or 99 percent cannot be explained by the reasons adduced earlier, so why is this escalation happening at all?
The Moderation policy of the School Boards is responsible for it. It was introduced in 1992, when different Education Boards across the country tried to bring about uniformity in results and to make up for the differences in difficulty levels when dealing with different sets of question papers on the same subject.
Experts have opined that it has resulted in competitive inflation of marks. Next year, the policy is being scrapped and the marks will reveal how much the policy was responsible for lifting boats higher than the rising tide.
How is a Percent Score in English Even Possible?
Let’s come now to the most bizarre phenomenon of all – how can 100 percent be even possible, or considered desirable, in English?
I recall watching on TV the 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal standing next to the scoreboard recording her perfect 10 as 1.0.
The computer program was not capable of displaying 10. Under the Code of Points set by the International Gymnastics Federation, the perfect score was unattainable. Omega had asked the International Olympic Committee how many digits it should allow on the electronic scoreboard, and were told that three digits would be sufficient, as a score of 10.00 was not possible.
But that changed in Montreal. Nadia performed in the uneven bars event, and was awarded a score of 10. Because the scoreboard only allowed three digits, it had to display her score as 1.00. This led to a total confusion. Nadia went on to score a total of seven 10s. There have been other instances of perfect 10s as well.
A new scoring system was introduced in 2006. It comprises an “A” score, based on the difficulty of elements, and a “B” score, based on artistic impression. While the B score still has a maximum of 10, it is only a part of the overall score. A perfect 10 is not possible now.
And rightly so. If any sport involves an artistic element, an athlete can be near-perfect, but not perfect. Artistic and creative talent by its nature strives for perfection, but never attains it. There is always a scope to improve. A delta between the ideal and the actual attainment, however miniscule, remains.
Let’s Examine the Paper
The same applies to English which is not like Physics and Mathematics which are exact sciences.
In English, there is no ceiling on imagination and articulation. To declare that a student has attained a finality beyond which there exists no scope for further evolution is to stilt excellence. It betrays a lack of understanding of the very nature of human endeavor.
So why are students hitting the perfect score? Is the English test paper these days an objective-type paper with multiple answers? Because that’s the only way a cent percent score is possible. If it is, is it even desirable?
First let’s examine the English paper that we got in 1974. It had two parts – 100 marks each. It comprised an essay, letter-writing, precis writing, comprehension, poetry appreciation, reference to context, and grammar.
Only grammar lent itself to full scoring; however, its weightage was only 25 percent. There was no question of scoring the maximum in the remaining parts. There was no such thing as a perfect essay or a letter. There were no objective type questions with multiple answers.
Let’s analyse the exam paper these days. Take for example, the CBSE English Core paper in 2015.
It’s a 100-mark paper. Section A deals with Reading (30 marks). There are three passages. The first passage is on Jerusalem and questions are based on it (12 marks).
Consider this question:
The Holy Sepulcher is sacred to:
(iv) Both (i) and (iii).
Or ‘Why did the pilgrims enter the room of the tomb in a single file’, or ‘Find words from the passage which means the same as a large grave’. The second passage is similar. (10 marks).
These passages are objective-type, partly multiple answer-based, which can secure the top score. But the third passage (8 marks) is different.
The first question requires the students to make notes on the passage, using headings and sub-headings. It also enjoins the students to use recognisable abbreviations and a suitable format, and to give an appropriate title (5 marks). The second question requires that a summary of 80 words be written (3 marks).
How on earth can one score 8/8? How can there be a perfect title or an immaculate summary?
How are Full Marks Being Awarded in Descriptive Questions?
Section B deals with Advanced Writing Skills (30 marks). The first part deals with writing a notice of 50 words about an event (4 marks) – one can choose any one of the two options given.
Similarly, the second part (6 marks) deals with letter-writing to the newspaper (120- 150 words) highlighting a problem and suggesting solutions; or giving views on an issue. The third part (10 marks) is on speech-writing (150-200 words). The fourth part (10 marks) is an essay (150-200 words).
Once again, these are not objective-type. Scoring full marks in such questions requiring descriptive responses boggles the imagination.
Section C deals with Literature – Text Books and Long Reading Text (40 marks). The first question (4 marks) is on poetry. Consider this question – ‘What worried the poet when she looked at her mother?’ Should such kind of questions even find place in the poetry section? Is this the way poetry ought to be taught and appreciated in schools? Is a quasi-objective- type question even desirable while testing a student on poetry appreciation? While these are larger issues to be decided by educationists, this part is designed to fetch top marks.
The second question (12 marks) deal with reference to context with answers of 30-40 words. The three to six (6 marks each) deal with longer answers of 120-150 words. A score of 40/40 is inconceivable. The best answer cannot be incapable of improvement.
There is no place for Grammar in the paper. Perhaps it’s considered unimportant.
The Language Has Been Reduced to Business English
The evaluations are done as per instructions provided in the CBSE Class 12 English Marking Scheme. The guidance provided by various coaching counsellors is that if the student prepares according to the marking scheme, there are high chances of scoring maximum marks possible.
They even recommend that, time willing, extra questions be answered so that the response with more marks is retained if the other response is wrong or gets lower marks. They also clarify that if the word limit is exceeded, no marks would be deducted. Astonishingly, they inform you that credit is given for content, not format!
The result is that expression is of no consequence, only the content is. The style of writing, the idioms, the metaphors, the allegories, the turn of phrase, the vocabulary, the allusions, the nuances, the working with words, the sensibilities are passé. The ability to imagine, the occasion for the mind to soar, the opportunity for the creative juices to run, the capacity to be open to new ideas, the faculty to learn verbal skills and reasoning abilities, do not matter anymore. The need to keep improving, keep learning, keep reading, keep writing, keep dreaming don’t fit into the contemporary scheme of things.
When you score a 100 in English, there are no peaks left to conquer anymore. The English language as taught in schools has now been reduced to Business English. From the ocean’s depths, the students are now wallowing in shallow waters.
But one change has taken place. The student, who topped English in 1974, won the Colonel Ogilvie’s Silver Medal which was awarded to him at a function held in Azad Bhavan, Indraprastha Estate, New Delhi. It was perhaps deemed appropriate at the time to award a silver, and not a gold medal, since English could never hope to be invited to the high table occupied by Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Book-keeping and Accountancy.
But now with English scoring as many marks as the other subjects, it now walks shoulder to shoulder with its co-travelers.
(Ajay Mankotia is a former IRS officer presently working in a media company. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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