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Reform Board Exams To Improve Learning Outcomes

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By Doug Johnson, Suvojit Chattopadhyay

Two weeks ago, India’s secondary school students began the painful annual ritual of taking board exams. It’s a ritual few appreciate being part of. Few things in life have been so reviled, for so long, as public examinations.

In the 11th century, chancellor to the Chinese emperor (and imperial exam topper) Anshi Wang wrote that the system of imperial examinations caused rote learning, teaching to the test, and severe anxiety. Wang’s complaints will be familiar to any secondary school student in India.

Yet, the biggest problem with the boards is one that gets less attention: They result in an education system that leaves most children behind. Results from the 2018 ASER survey show that only about a quarter of rural class five students can perform simple division.

Yet, according to the official curriculum, these students should already be able to perform division in a variety of ways and should be mastering the concepts of factors and fractions. This gap between the official curriculum and what students know has severe consequences for learning. Evidence shows that students learn little once they fall behind, and conversely, they can make rapid progress if they are taught at the right level.

Numerous Efforts Have Been Made To Address The Problem Of Curricular Load

In the 1980s, reformers hoped that new non-formal education centres targeting un-enrolled children and which did not follow the standard curriculum would allow students to learn at their own pace. Architects of the previous education policy in 1986 mandated the provision of learning materials like science kits, maps, and toys, hoping that teachers would feel less pressure to stick to the textbook.

And in 1993, the Yashpal Committee recommended decentralisation of curriculum design in the hope that teachers and officials would factor in local context and needs when deciding what to include in the syllabus.

All of these efforts, and many others, failed for the simple reason that parents wanted no part of any new system that didn’t adequately prepare their children for the boards. It follows then that reforming the boards might be critical if we want to see far-reaching reforms in classroom pedagogy.

Why Argue Over Which Of The Many Flaws In The Current Boards Is The Most Important?

The reason is that different problems require different reforms. To fix the problem of curriculum load, the boards must move from testing for rote memorisation of a litany of facts to real understanding of a smaller number of concepts. In addition, board examination scores must meaningfully distinguish between good and outstanding students and between students who may be lagging behind and those with basic reading and math skills so that teachers don’t ignore those who can’t catch up.

By contrast, to address the issues of stress and inflexible learning paths, students should be given greater flexibility in when they take their boards, how many times they are allowed to take the boards, and what subjects they could choose from.

The Good News Is That All Of These Reforms Are Included In The National Education Policy (NEP)

The bad news is that there is no way that the central government can implement all of these changes at once. Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock use the term ‘premature load bearing’ to refer to the common practice of trying to do too much too soon when it comes to policy.

When it comes to high-stakes examinations reforms, premature load bearing is the rule rather than the exception. Countries like China, which have attempted overly ambitious reforms of high-stakes reforms, often reverse course after the disruption becomes unmanageable.

What Can Be Done?

To avoid this fate, the Government of India should start by making basic changes to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to shift from testing memorisation to testing understanding and better distinguishing learning levels across the entire continuum of student levels. Educational Initiative’s report from its work with the Gujarat State Board provides several excellent suggestions for how to achieve this without causing undue disruption.

First, the Ministry of Education (MoE) should require the CBSE to generate questions that test conceptual understanding rather than textbook memorisation. Second, CBSE should gradually increase the share of these new questions in exam papers so that students and teachers have time to adjust to the change. At the same time, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and others should create and share sample questions and other materials to help students become familiar with the new question type.

In addition to these changes at the board level, the University Grants Commission (UGC) should grant universities flexibility in how they use board scores in admissions so that they are not forced to treat, for example, scores from the Tamil Nadu state board as equivalent to scores from the Haryana state board.

If (and only if) successful, the Centre should push other states to adopt similar changes to their own boards. These reforms are tough but doable and would yield huge benefits by allowing teachers to slow down and focus more on concepts than rote memorisation.

This is not to say that the reforms intended to increase student convenience, reduce stress, or provide for more individualised learning paths are not important. These areas critical but will take much more time and effort.

For example, allowing students to take the board exams more than once a year requires boards to create new sets of questions and administer the exam multiple times and carefully calibrate the scoring so that scores for one date are equivalent to scores from another date. Providing more flexibility in subject choice is an equally admirable goal but will require significant additional effort on the part of secondary schools.

These changes will also be welcome, but we must walk before we can run.

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

About the authors:

Doug Johnson is an independent researcher based in Bangkok, Thailand. Previously, Doug was a director at IDinsight, where he led a portfolio of projects focused on education and innovative methods for data collection. Doug has held positions at USAID, the World Bank, Abt Associates, and Accenture. He has a BA in Political Science from Rice University and an MPA in International Development (MPA/ID) from Harvard Kennedy School.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay works on issues of governance and development in East Africa and South Asia. His interests are in the field of policymaking, implementation issues that affect development and studying the politics of development. Suvojit has an undergraduate degree in economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi and a master’s degree from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, and Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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