Our Exams Neither Test Knowledge Nor Prepare Kids For College

Students have learnt to memorise but not to think, and are incapable of handling college curriculum. 

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
The race to higher marks actually damages students’ abilities to do well in higher education.
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Our students continue to amaze us in their examination results, with so many of them scoring close to perfect marks in their board exams. These are the same cohorts of students that have been declared largely unemployable.

Still, not just the highest scores continue to soar, but also the pass rates continue to rise. There is clearly something happening here that enables such incredible marks. Interestingly, the toppers this year are not from the big city famous schools, they are from from little known schools in Ghaziabad and Muzaffarnagar. Also, the Humanities now deliver scores as high as science subjects breaking the barrier of subjective marking.

This concentration at the top is putting immense pressure on higher education, where there is still very limited capacity of good quality.

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Pressure To Deliver Scores

The long waiting lists, the cutoffs at near 100 percent levels and the fifth and sixth lists for admissions are all testament to the high pressure for entry into good higher education institutions.

This combined with grade inflation puts incredible amount of pressure on students to conform to the tunnel vision approach and knuckle down and deliver these scores.

Till last year, much of this grade inflation was attributed to the practice of ‘moderation’. While the practice of competitive up-marking, or ‘moderation’ of scores across examination boards remains invisible to the public, we continue to see a bunching of marks, now upwards of the erstwhile spike at the 95-mark point.

Some believe that the boards boost the scores so that they are seen to breed high achievement. This alone cannot account for the consistent high scores, and we have too look to the students and the revision-examination complex that has now learnt to deliver with great efficiency.

Exams Not A Test Of Knowledge

With single-minded teaching-to-the-test in classrooms, with repeated drilling at tuitions and with clear focus on precisely what needs to be written in the examination, our students are more than able to perform. School and tuition centres thrive on the predictability of the examination exercise.

Test preparation apps on the phone, internet based tuition access to previous students’ perfect answer sheets, and their test preparation stories, all help them work their way to narrow perfection.

Our examinations are not about thinking, solving or creating. They are about recall and execute, with speed and precision. The answer to a question has been memorised and written so many times that a student even knows its punctuation before starting to write.

This is a test of reliable replication, not a test of knowledge. Over the years we have got better and better at it, with top marks steadily climbing higher each year till we are now scraping the top. But this does not translate into preparedness for higher education.

Students have learnt to memorise but not to think, they have learnt to repeat, not to argue and so are incapable of handling college curriculum that is all about building independent capabilities. The gap between school knowledge and college readiness is so much that a bridge year seems necessary that enables students to operate independent of their drill masters.

A ‘Good’ Student Is A Photocopier

Our students may not may not be able to apply their knowledge of the curriculum, since they do not always understand it wholly, but they are clearly skilled in taking exams to score.

The examiner is your customer, and will reward in marks, so delivering a great customer experience with neat handwriting, organised diagrams and well indented answers is essential to high scores.

Most importantly, let it be an answer that is exactly the same as in the book, so that the examiner just needs to match and map, and not even bother to read the answer.

This enables speedy marking, and of course leaves no room for any marks being cut by the examiner. A ‘good’ student would have run this mile a thousand times, shaving off errors and time, getting to perfection till they are ready to regurgitate it on the exam day on to the answer sheet. An ideal student is a photocopier on demand.

The purpose of higher education is to prepare for employment and to be ready to create and build better futures via work.

Better scores do not signal competence since the questions are designed to test for memory, not to test for thinking or application of knowledge.

This over reliance on rote learning stunts student abilities, and so the race to higher marks actually damages students’ abilities to do well in higher education and work. There is no indication that high test scores would lead to better life outcomes. Near perfect scores do not lead to near perfect lives.

Our examinations need to change to test for useful skills such as critical thinking, application, critique and solutioning rather than regurgitation to make their scores meaningful for higher education.

( Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts et al, entitled to use the letters FRSA after her name. Meeta has been the founder of the Centre for Education Strategy, a Delhi based think tank that builds bridges between policy and practice for educators, educationists and Institutions.)

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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