Life is an Open Book Exam, Why should School Exams be Any Different

20 Aug

The picture that went viral showed (male) friends and family members climbing an un-plastered school building where the class X (age 16) Board exam was being held in order to pass answer cheat sheets through the window to the hapless, presumably under-prepared youngsters inside the rooms.

The picture shocked us. It showed India the mirror, surely. Or was the shock more of shame when the picture was circulated abroad? Don’t Indians know that many centres allow cheating? Has everyone not heard stories of centres when ‘supported’ candidates are allowed ‘help’. Or of centres where every candidate is ‘supported’ by a teacher who basically announces the answers in class. Invigilation in many centres is a joke, and that is where one is safe due to collusion. In other centres an invigilator’s job is highly risky – many fear for their lives. Rumours, newspaper stories and stories retold at social gatherings – none of them have ever caused an uproar, nor a gasp of wonder let alone a shrinking in shame for the pervasive phenomenon of cheating.

Everyone knows cheating happens.


Who would want to do business with those labeled as cheats? Even the thousands, even millions who are honest are often tarred with the same brush. Every act of dishonesty – whether it is climbing a wall to cheat in an exam, or breaking a red light to get ahead or looking at a woman in a way that crosses a boundary line – every such act reduces you, and your community. Sink, and all sink together.

The problem here  is not the story of cheating. The problem is the fact that cheating is acceptable and has been tolerated. A cheat at school is a corrupt worker. A successful cheat at school is a supporter of corruption as a way of life.

That picture of cheating? It stank. It stank of the rot in our education system. It stank of desperation. It reeked of compromises that prepared one only for a life of underhanded survival. The smell of that picture stays with us.

Why Cheat?

Poor ethics. Short sightedness. Examinations beyond capabilities. Unprepared students. Poor teaching. Poor learning. Bad schools. Lack of hard work. Unrealistic expectations. Bad examination design. Irrelevant curriculum.

Too many certificates, too few competencies.

There are so many reasons to cheat. And only one reason not to cheat.

One look at mass cheating (yes, that is a thing) and you realise that the only fools left behind are those who stick to their principles and not cheat. (You’ve heard this before, haven’t you? And nodded?) And some of us decide to ‘Stay Honest, Stay Foolish’ (h/t @rashmibansal) when it comes to the test.

Else, what does that test achieve?

A test of competencies? A test of abilities? A test of memory? A test of knowledge? A test of skills? A test – but for what purpose?

Currently, it is a test that stands for ten years of schooling – certifying the value of all that has been learned and absorbed in that decade. It stands as a baseline for higher studies. But truly, more than anything, it stands as a key to accessing scarce seats at the next level.

The desperation we saw in the picture was not to do well in the test. It wasn’t about excellence or a keenness to deliver to the best of one’s abilities. It was about grabbing that key that would open the next gate for them. The gate to the next opportunity, the gate that would allow them to access more value add, a better salary and returns. Because the pipeline narrows after this. Because there aren’t enough good jobs and colleges.

Whether they had earned it or not, they were desperate to get to that key.

So, now what? Scrap the exam?

No, not scrap it. Banning things just because they are misused isn’t an intelligent response to anything. Scrapping or banning only acknowledges that you did not have enough sense or ability to work out a solution.

(i) Improve governance. Pretty obvious really.

(ii) Change the examination. If school is a preparation for life, then the tests at the end of secondary schooling should test for life-preparedness. Much of what is tested is irrelevant to life. Much of what is tested defies economic rationality to an average student – they see no reason or motivation to learn. Test for life, in the way life works. If life is an open book examination, then why should school exams be any different?

(iii) Increase the number, diversity of exams so that each one of them is smaller, more focused and gives small certificates and rewards that can add up to serve individual goals. The Board exams (X and XII) currently try to be servants of all – baseline tests, access to higher education, test of values and life skills, support to competitive entrance systems, certificates of readiness for basic employability, certification of competence for professional careers etc. A single exam can only really serve one master well. Offer a greater variety of exams – even within the same administrative framework – so that students can have more choice. In the same 3 hours, they could (for example) have three papers. The basic should qualify, the next could certify for professional courses and the third hour – advanced – could test for access to competitive spaces. All students can choose how much they want to attempt according to their goals. There are other models too, of course – including one that helps students play to contextual strengths such as tests in traditional skills, knowledge etc.

(iv) Work the pipeline. The rot, the problems and the desperation only show up at exam time, when brought to the test. The real challenges lie in cleaning up the ten years of schooling. Which brings us back to solution (i).

If this picture shook you, and showed you an India that you never want to see again, then do your bit for ‘Swachh Shiksha’. Because a corrupted education system is a meaningless waste.

Life is an open book exam – why should school exams be any different?

March 23, 2015, 1:54 pm IST in EduCable | Economy, Lifestyle | TOI

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