Government should have considered ways to conduct board exams online – The Indian Express

The government has announced that CBSE Class XII Exams 2021 have been cancelled. The next step is to compile the results of Class XII students according to “a well-defined objective criterion” in a time-bound manner. It will only be a matter of time before state after state will start cancelling their board exams for Class XII. The media has overwhelmingly claimed this as an appropriate and bold decision. Be that as it may, there are several serious issues confronting not only the school boards (for assessment) and colleges (for admission) but also what needs to be done in the future, in the interest of the students, when it is known that Covid is here to stay.

What could this well-defined criterion be? Marks of the Class X board examinations? Evaluation of students by teachers? Already, the Delhi High Court has issued notices to the CBSE, Centre and Delhi government on a plea seeking modifications in the policy for the tabulation of marks for Class X board exams based on the internal assessment conducted by a school, which is just the beginning of such litigations. The fact remains that evaluations cannot be free of subjectivity or the tendency of schools to inflate marks in order to outdo each other. It is also going to be an uphill task for the Education Ministry to maintain parity across boards as the body which is supposed to coordinate such matters — COBSE (Council of Boards of School Education) — is largely ineffective.

The continuous evaluation of a student using data analytics and remedial measures is the most effective way. Technology provides “Learning Management Systems” (LMS) for such evaluations. If they are indeed used, then as a policy, the end-semester exams could be abandoned as a disposable burden on the student, Covid or no Covid. Unfortunately, we are very far from adopting such avant garde initiatives in schools or even in universities. The few that follow these do so only in some chosen courses and programmes and in a manner that is often manual, error-prone and subjective. That the end-semester exams are still held is a commentary on the internal and continuous evaluation systems.

When a student enrols, he expects that his learning is uninterrupted and that he is evaluated fairly for learning outcomes, which we loosely interpret as knowledge gained. Just as there are different modes of learning, there are several modes of assessment that schools and universities routinely follow. Whatever be the mode or duration, learning is not complete without assessment of outcomes.

A student would always take pride in showing the results of his efforts to his peers and parents. That this will not be the case for yet another year is not only the student’s loss but also questions the systems in place. The psychological damage it does to children’s self-esteem can only be imagined. Study a whole year and then find some inane way to pass, besides the long-term effect of having to show such result sheets at every competitive exam, be it for further studies or for finding employment. At least 14 lakh students bear the consequences of the decision. To that extent, the decision seems to be insensitive towards the feelings of students.

Covid forced everyone to go online from March last year. When so much was aligned to the efficacy of technology and its possibilities, why did we not think about conducting examinations and assessments through the same technology? We had a year-and-a-half to make the necessary investments. We could have learnt from our experience of NEET, JEE, CAT, GATE or even the online exams conducted by AICTE in pharmacy and management since 2010. This mode of examination is universally accepted as a trusted assessment methodology.

Pre-processing of exams includes the creation and scheduling of exams, setting up anti-cheating tools as well as evaluation rules. These exams are conducted digitally and proctored using AI technology. Finally, post exams, the requirement is of assigning answer-sheets to evaluators, monitoring and managing the evaluation process and the declaration of results. Several application-based solutions that conduct exams are LMS-integrated as well.

We are fortunate to have an efficient agency, tailormade to take up the task. The National Testing Agency (NTA) was established in 2017 as a premier, specialist, autonomous and self-sustained testing organisation to conduct entrance examinations for admission/fellowship in higher educational institutions. The LMS is available in some form in SWAYAM, again a GoI initiative.

This needs some customisation and integration with online exam tools. The private sector routinely provides such solutions to the corporate world. At the other end, one could have easily set up kiosks or given limited scope tablets that hardly cost Rs 5,000 to those who need them. Using the BSNL/NIC services, Wi-Fi hotspots could have been set up at strategic locations.

One possible solution could be to work on the pattern of GATE: A single paper, with six sections/subjects, each of 30 marks, conducted over 180 minutes; objective, online and multiple choice-based, in a window of 15 days, twice a day with options to the student to choose time and day. With 70 per cent weightage assigned to each of the components added to 30 per cent weightage to internals, one could generate a Class XII marksheet, which can be used for admissions as well.

The fact that all this was not even explored and we instead went for the softer option of complete cancellation of exams is unfortunate. The official justification for the decision is that it is meant to safeguard students’ health. The government must seriously explore all the possible options so that we don’t find ourselves in the same situation next year.

This article first appeared in the print edition on June 15, 2021 under the title ‘The online exam option’. Mantha is former chairman, AICTE. Thakur is former secretary MHRD, GoI

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