Saturday, 2 June 2012

Issues: Putting exams to the test

(I wrote this in 2002)

When Manish and Harish, both class III students from Delhi, fled to Bangalore by train recently, they dramatically spotlighted the most debated aspect of the Indian education system — examinations. Can apprehension of final assessment drive two nine-year-olds to flee their homes and the safety of the familiar? Apparently, yes. For, to them, the unknown loomed as a lesser fear than the horror of examinations.

To what extent can examinations traumatise children? Dr. Brinda Amritraj, a clinical psychologist, shares the case of an exceptional standard X student, on whose shoulders the dreams of her parents and teachers rested. Faced with the preparatory exams, she suffered a panic attack and blanked out. "To think a child like that could not perform!" observes Brinda. "She felt: `I can't bear it that I have come down in my own eyes.' That's difficult. If it's only a question of others' expectations, it's easier to allocate the blame."

Through Zeitgeist (that is German for the `spirit of the times'), Dr. Brinda has been enhancing the realisation of individual potential for years. She adds: "Yet, in some ways, the pressures of our system enhance productivity and teach survival skills. Almost all children who go abroad from India are classified as gifted students. It's only when they come back that they have problems settling in."

The impact of this testing device on tender psyches emerges from conversations with a range of City-based schoolgoers, most currently in the throes of exam fever. "I like exams because I get to remember what I have learnt so far,'' says Tara Kumar, a fourth standard student of the Sacred Hearts Girls' Primary School, whose favourite subjects are Arithmetic, Moral Science, and Grammar. ''The only time I dislike an exam is when it is tough or boring." Her sister, Aditi, who's 11, seconds that with, "I don't mind exams. They are fine, but basically I don't like studying."

Prateeti Prasad, 14, of Vidya Niketan, has been subjected to exams since class V. "Why do they have exams just once a year, instead of seeing how we have done the whole year? We have only 20 marks for internal assessment, but 80 for the exams," she says.

Ten-year-old Akash Sharma, who topped the national-level under-10 chess tournament at Sangli, studies at the Kendriya Vidyalaya. He feels: "Exams are nothing very special, except that we have to spend time preparing for them." However, Akash has an interesting point, which comes as a surprise from someone of his age. He feels that the less courageous ones can be unnerved by the sheer thought of an exam. It is mostly the fear of failure, he observes.

How do parents gauge the examination syndrome? Abha Sharma, Akash's mother and the director of a software company, stresses: "Exams are given too much of importance, which is unwarranted. But I wouldn't take a drastic stance against exams. In our competitive world, how else can we assess how our children measure up? I don't think children would bother too much about exams if their parents' anxieties were not communicated to them."

Assessing today's schooling, Ms. Sharma notes: "These days, Maths Olympiads and Talent Search exams enter a child's life as early as standard IV or VI. If the child is not well or feeling off-mood during the two to three hours of an exam, is it fair for him or her to be judged not for intelligence but for failure to deliver?" she asks. "I feel sad that parents consider extra reading of so little value. Often, the child faces remarks such as `Why are you wasting time reading that book? It won't come in your exam!'" Anand Kumar, a scientist and father of Tara and Aditi, says: "I'd like my children to know their lessons in the normal course, not just for their exams. Their music and art classes are just as important as their studies. I'll never expect them to get up early in the morning to study for an exam."

Prateeti's father Guruprasad says: "We have been very relaxed parents. We don't force Prateeti to study, apart from an occasional pep talk. But she knows these are the three most important years of her school life if she wants to have her pick of college options. She's free to watch TV even during her exams."

Max Mueller Bhavan librarian, Maureen Gonsalves, whose nine-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son are at The Valley School, where examinations are introduced only at the Standard IX level, shares a different angle: "I'm not against exams per se. But I find the kind of exams we have objectionable because they only test memory or how fast a child writes. I have watched even a first standard child being tutored at home, his tennis classes and other extra-curricular activities stopped, because it is so important for parents that their child should top the class. The current board exams are both formidable and traumatic."

What are the alternatives to our exam-centric system? M. Srinivas, founder of the five-year-old Gifted Education Research (Gear) Foundation, offers another perspective. "Our exams are almost always about incapacitating the child's mind. Children emerge from them with the feeling that they have not done well. Instead, creative exams should give teachers a chance to spot a child's abilities and motivate him/ her to do better."

The Gear system, with its stress on multiple intelligence (MI), identifies and nurtures each child's special talent. Armed with a master's degree in Gifted and Talented Education from Connecticut, USA, Mr. Srinivas stresses: "We have to join hands with parents, schools, the Department of Education, and policy-makers to develop creative exams. How does it help us if fear psychosis incapacitates the child, instead of accelerating learning? We have to evolve a system that will test the child's abilities, not just memory. What do these tests prove about problem-solving or creative thinking?" Ms. Gonsalves adds in the light of her recent online exam in library science: "Open book or online exams that test understanding or application make much better sense." 

Teacher and writer Poile Sengupta, who loves children, says: "I don't like exams, but what other system of evaluation do we have for standards of information? When children sit at a desk with exam papers, their intelligence is being tested, not expressed. If only every school had a viable and equally-powerful non-testing system through which the children could express themselves, that would counteract and neutralise exams."

As the pros and cons of the debate rage unabated, Mr. Srinivas suggests: "The major problem is that our system does not provide an opportunity for feedback or discussion on the child's responses. What do these grades prove about a child's potential abilities? I would prefer a system of national descriptive evaluations instead of marks, which can be interpreted equally by all. Our system is totally irrelevant to life. If Indian education has to change, our exams have to change."

How? "If a child can express himself better through pictures than words, why can't we ask him to draw a car that might exist 50 years from now?'' Mr. Srinivas queries.

Perhaps the final word rests temporarily with Akash. "The free time we get after our exams compensates for them." Prateeti concurs: "The best part of exams is that they finally get over!"

When will policy-makers, educators, and parents take children into confidence to resolve the examination riddle, so that Manish and Harish no longer have to flee the system?

Their time starts now.

(The Hindu Metroplus, 2002)

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