It would be impossible to recount any occasion in human history when tens of millions of children were forced to stay indoors for over a year, deprived of meeting friends, playing outdoor games, attending classrooms, talking to teachers, and enjoying the fun that makes childhood so special!
Human curiosity and creativity just cannot come to a sudden halt. Alternatives to confront the situation were explored. Teachers and students swiftly acquired the skills necessary to substitute — to the extent possible — the face-to-face teaching by online learning. As off-line was ruled out, online really reduced the tension and stress among children and parents to an extent as some learning was certainly better than no learning.
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But there were other issues. Not all children could access online learning. Most significant was the uncertainty around examinations, particularly the school board examinations of classes 10 and 12. In 2020, CBSE had to cancel the class 12 exams scheduled during July 1st to 15th. Several other school boards also had to take similar initiatives.
There was a great sigh of relief when India recorded only 8635 fresh Corona cases on February 2nd, 2021. Everyone took it as a great victory over the pandemic and India relaxed, as did its systems and institutions. We are now paying a heavy price for that hurried presumption.
Only a one-time solution
With panic all-around, and health systems on the verge of collapse, the decision taken on April 14th under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister to cancel the class 10 Board Exams and postpone those for class 12 was the best alternative for the children and the nation. It came as a great relief to children, and their parents who were under tremendous pressure and anxiety as the dates of the CBSE Exams were announced even as the daily count of COVID infections was leaping ahead in demoralizing proportion.
However, even this decision is only a temporary relief as it has its own implications that may lead to complex imperatives for the young persons as they seek to move ahead in the education ladder.
Given that exams and assessment are to stay in the system, cancellation or postponement could only be one-time emergency solutions. The CBSE has also indicated that if some children wish to give the class 10 board exam, arrangements for the same would be made at the appropriate time. Now, the CBSE has fixed June 1 as its deadline to decide on fresh dates for the exams.
Similarly, children who had worked hard for class 12 exams, are under tension of another type: uncertainty about new dates! There is no other solution in sight for the current batches, but the system must work out alternatives that it could fall back upon, even in the future should such tough situations beyond human control arise.
If the internal assessment system had been working with precision, if schools all over enjoyed credibility and people’s faith, if academic leadership right from primary school to highest level commanded respect, appearance in the final examination would not have mattered much. The Board Exam results could have been announced without any hesitation based on the inputs received from schools. Sadly, although such an assessment process has been proposed on various occasions, it could not come up to desired levels in actual practice.
An idea that looked pretty new, interesting and feasible was successfully attempted in 2002-03 by the NIOS –National Institute of Open Schooling. It’s Chairperson Professor N K Ambasth called it “On-demand Examination” wherein the student could go to a convenient place with necessary facilities, download the desired examination paper, write the answer and send it to the Board. As it often happens, it was not pursued further; otherwise a very tangible alternative would have been available at this juncture.
New assessment systems
It is high time that major school Boards pay serious attention to examination reforms, set up groups of technical experts and academic researchers to work on alternatives like On-Demand Exams. CBSE could take the lead with organizations like NCERT, NCTE, NIOS and others joining hands and contribute resources including academic and financial inputs.
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Serious research on developing new assessment systems is urgently necessary. The National Education Policy, NEP-2020, is under implementation. It has made transformational recommendations regarding exam reforms. It lays emphasis on “conceptual understanding rather than rote learning and learning-for-exams”. This could happen only when the teacher becomes a co-learner and understands that the learner is ‘discovering’, with the teacher encouraging, motivating, and assisting.
As the system moves towards learning to learn and less content, school Boards must shift the aim of assessment “from one that is summative and primarily tests rote memorization skills to one that is more formative, is more competency-based, promotes learning and development of our students and tests higher-order skills, such as analysis, critical thinking and conceptual clarity.” This, however, will demand massive resource input, missionary zeal and a vibrant work culture.
For quality and excellence in education, India needs to launch a national campaign “Equip the School, Trust the Teacher”. For quality enhancement, and for continuous evaluation of the all-round learning achievement of individual learners, schools need teachers in right student-teacher ratio, and these teachers must be fully trained, appointed on regular basis, and not burdened with non-academic assignments. The state governments have a major role here to staff their schools, and teacher education institutions at the earliest.