Saturday, June 21, 2014

A curmudgeon's lament

Sujit's  Std.X results came out on 23rd May. Before the results came, there was great apprehension  in the house regarding his performance. When the results came there were whoops of joy and high fives in the house - his performance was much better than expected. (He had scored 87%) I thought back to the time when I got my Std. X results. It was a much quieter affair.

At that time, I was on holiday in my native place in Kerala. I got a letter from my uncle informing me about the results.(It was the age of snail mail.) I informed my parents about the results, they were happy with them and there were congratulations all around. The whole thing lasted for about10 minutes and then everyone went back to their work. It was treated almost as a routine affair and I didn't feel that it was strange. Looking at the expensive gifts that people gave Sujit, my mother commented that she had not even bought me a Hawai chappal. (Notwithstanding the fact that she was one of the culprits this time around. Strict parents often become indulgent grandparents.) That was a different time.

It is like the clippings that you see of old cricket matches. When a bowler picks up a wicket, he gives a quiet smile, the fielders walk up to him and shake hands and wait for the next guy to come in. No jumping around making faces, no pointing angrily to the pavilion. I loved the reactions of Ajinkya Rahane and Kane Williamson when they got their first Test centuries. They quietly raised their bat to the crowd, acknowledged their partner and then got ready to face the next ball.

A couple of days  after Sujit's results, I viewed them more soberly after getting an idea of the distribution of marks. I couldn't recall anybody who had scored below 80%. (That is still the case about a month after the results had been declared.) About 1/4 to 1/3 of Sujit's class had scored 100% in each of Maths, Science (Physics + Chemistry +Biology) and Social Studies (History + Geography +Civics). If you get the impression that Sujit's class was filled with exceptionally bright students, perish the thought. Anyway, how do you get 100% in a subject like Social studies?

Apparently three students in the state had secured 500 / 500 (the other two subjects being English and Hindi / Tamil). I would love to see the marks distribution for the State as a whole. I have some idea of the marks distribution of only 3 schools but even if I had a sample of only one school of 70 odd students it was strange that everybody scored above 80%. Scoring 100% in any subject should be a rare achievement but it seemed to be common. It was obvious that correction was very lenient to inflate the marks.

The question papers too (not just the Board questions but also the ones in the school) have been simple. Generally, the questions should progress in order of difficulty. The distribution of questions could be say, 50% of the questions are easy and everybody can attempt them, 30% of the questions will be tougher and 20% of the questions can be tackled only if you are really prepared. Such a gradation is non-existent here. To my mind, you should not be able to max any paper except Maths where you can get exact answers. All other papers have qualitative elements in them.

The focus on marks to the exclusion of all else is amazing. Jaya was telling me about some reactions after the results. One parent asked her about Sujit's marks and on being told that it was 87%, she seemed about to express her sympathies but was confused by the joyful look on Jaya's face, hesitated, mumbled a quick 'ok' and hurried on. I was told of a girl who was in tears because she had scored 'only' 97 in science whereas she was expecting 100.

A friend of Sujit, who had score almost 10 percentage points higher than him, was downcast because he got 'only' 99 each in Science and Social Studies and his mother was scolding him! It was a bizarre (and sad) tale.  What kind of pressure are these kids being put under? I am told that the trend of scoring 100% in various subjects started about 10 years ago. The dumbing down of the syllabus and the marks inflation are presumably to reduce the pressure on the students but it is having the opposite effect on them. As often happens, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

The liberal correction makes it more difficult to distinguish the bright students from the not so bright ones. I have met some bright students who would have done well in a better school and some others who George Carlin refers to as "minimally exceptional". If you look at the mark difference between them, it will be only about 10 percentage points while I think it should be much higher.

For admission to colleges in Tamil Nadu, the marks of all Boards are  treated on par. In the State Board, the marking will be liberal, the students just have to learn by rote and vomit it out during the exams and so end up with absurdly high marks.There is a famous Pink Floyd song which says that education tends to turn students into sausages. It seems to be very true here. I  am quite sure that if you ask those Science students (I have heard only Science marks) to describe the scientific method, they will struggle. The system is different in CBSC and those students end up with lower marks. You will be cautioned by everyone against joining a CBSC school because you will not be able to compete with the State Board students on marks. So the students are caught between the Scylla of learning and the Charybdis of marks.

Scoring marks seems to become easier by the day. Scoring 80% seems to be like what scoring 60% was when I was in school. A friend told me that CBSC Std. X portions have been diluted, the questions have been restricted and the students know what questions to expect for the exams.This year's CBSC Std. XII topper scored 99.6%. Whenever I see marks of 100% or close to it in any subject other than Maths, I get suspicious of the question paper pattern and the correction.

This post raises questions about ICSE correction. Students increasingly seem to take the easy way out to score marks and Spinoza's observation - Anything excellent is difficult - seems  lost on them. Increasing the pass percentage by diluting standards is pulling the wool over peoples' eyes. Unlike what this ad says, it is ullu banaoing everybody. As I had written earlier, "Why create a generation of thinkers when what’s needed are workers?” seems to be the thinking behind education in most Indian schools. I increasingly agree with this guy's views. Richard Dawkins says in Unweaving the Rainbow:

I worry that to promote science as all fun and larky and easy is to store up trouble for the future. Real science can be hard (well challenging, to give it a more positive spin) but, like classical literature or playing the violin, worth the struggle. If children are lured into science, or any other worthwhile occupation, by the promise of easy fun, what are they going to do when they finally have to confront the reality? Recruiting advertisements for the army rightly don't promise a picnic: they seek young people dedicated enough to stand the pace.

Of course have many more ways to waste time these days. Apart from TV, there is Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp etc. which make it more difficult to do anything productive.  This is is especially so for teenagers because at this time, peer pressure is difficult to resist and they "know" everything. (I was more confident of many things when I was in my teens than I am now.) I didn't even have a TV at home which made it easier to channel my energies in more worthwhile directions. I realized that long after my teens.

There is in social psychology the theory of the cognitive miser: a person will put in less effort to achieve a certain task if he can manage well in this way. After all  why work harder when yo can get by with less? Getting absurdly high marks in various subjects makes students think that they are geniuses which is far from the truth. It increases their illusion of explanatory depth, a failing that bedevils all of us.

A factor that is probably involved in the dumbing down of the syllabus and marks inflation is an over-emphasis on the idea of self-esteem, an idea that has been criticised. If you keep telling people that they are the cat's whiskers without any reason, you promote arrogance coupled with ignorance which is a deadly combination. An important factor in learning is developing the ability to say "I don't know" which is not helped by indiscriminately granting 100% marks. As Einstein did not say, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."


  1. ..............This is known as grade inflation. Grade inflation in high school is inversely related to propensity to learn. In a country, which has only an exam system and a failed education system such changes can be detrimental for the growth of the whole country.

  2. The bit about distractions is too true: while I did have TV growing up, it was limited to Doordarshan. And not being a very outdoors girl, i spent an enormous amount of time reading.. partly thanks to dad who bought me loads of books...
    But try as i may, I cant get my younger cousins to read a book.. as you kno-there are more fun things to do-watch tv, play video games (on the computer, on the phone) and watch more tv. They dont really know how much more amazingly entertaining the inside of the head is with a good book at hand. This is sad.