Friday, June 17, 2016

Exams and suicides

My colleague Rohit Dhankar has an essay in today's The Hindu called "Staying power of the pass-fail system". It gives a historical and sociocultural perspective on why examinations dominate our education system. Here is one of his conclusions:
But it seems that the biggest force behind the persistence of this curse [of a] useless examination system is a social one which is grossly under-examined. We are a caste-based and strictly hierarchical society. In earlier times, this hierarchy had the iron-clad stability of the caste system. That determined the place, function, work and life of an Indian even before his/her birth. There are attempts now, which range from constitutional rights to political struggle, to break that mould. It may not have been dismantled yet, but is under tremendous pressure ever since the freedom movement began.

But social hierarchies involve privileges, prestige and goods of life that are cherished by all. [No one] is ready to let go of the privileges one has. As a result... attempts to maintain the old hierarchy as well as...  ways to challenge it look toward education. Education, therefore, becomes a means of fierce competition either to remain in one’s position of privilege or to rise in the hierarchy. It completely stops being a self-motivated way of forming an authentic self and gaining an understanding of the world, and is reduced to a means to beat/best the neighbour. A more open and thoughtful system of education will challenge the hierarchies which are so dear to a caste-minded Indian. The result is that the authoritarian system of pass-fail stays.
The months of March through June in India are fraught with news reports of students commiting suicide because of the examination system. "When will we ever learn?" asks an anguished teacher Devi Kar. As she chillingly says of our suicides: "Our children are usually found hanging from ceiling fans."

Dhankar's essay (also available on his bilingual blog Thinking Aloud) notes: "There is no commission or committee report after Independence which does not acknowledge the burden of rote learning and the examination system on its students and its futility in assessing their real abilities." In fact, a decade ago, the magazine India Today told us several heart-rending stories about these "Killer Exams". It concluded by suggesting the following measures:
  • Instead of one-shot terminals, exams would be staggered over two semesters to ease pressure.
  • Evaluations would be a mix of internal and external. No sprinting through answer papers.
  • Restricting the number of pre-board exams and possibly banning them altogether.
  • A combination of multiple choice and traditional questions to test understanding and broad skills and not just memory.
  • No more failures in the new grading system being evolved
A decade later in 2016, we seem to be no better in stopping our children from killing themselves because of the examination system.

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