The CBSE results are out and almost everyone has done well. And, everyone is happy. Congratulations. However, are these marks a true reflection of the real performance of the children? A number of students in India scoring cent percent in humanities? I was faced with the ground reality when I took over as Secretary, School Education and Literacy, in 2016. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Upon scrutiny, it was revealed that a number of Boards were spiking marks in the name of moderation. The entire exercise had apparently begun with providing grace marks to the students of class 10 and 12 to pass but gradually it morphed into an exercise to enable the examinees of these Boards to secure admission in Central Universities (primarily Delhi University). These universities were using the marks obtained in the Board examinations as the benchmark.
Broadly speaking, a child who got 16 percent marks in a particular subject could pass it with grace marks of around 5 percent and the corresponding figure in the case of all subjects came to around 10 percent. Thus, we had a scenario where students who should have been detained by a long margin passed easily. Another problem was that almost every student got 10 percent marks more than they actually deserved. This led to a situation where a large number of students scored 95 percent in the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) as this was the ceiling of spiking set by the Board.
Effectively every student who scored between 85 percent and 95 percent ended up getting 95 percent. What could be a greater farce! In some other Boards, the ceiling was as high as 100 percent. This resulted in students getting 100 percent even in languages (English and Hindi). Shakespeare would indeed be turning in his grave, but the situation was not considered grave enough in India as the present was benefitting at the cost of the future.
Despite this travesty, the all India pass percentage of 80 percent in CBSE was a poor reflection on our education system. The pass percentage would have plummeted substantially had this inflation of marks been disallowed. No one was prepared to face the facts. The Chairman of a State Board who chose to face the facts and disallowed inflated marking was sacked.
The moderation policy of
CBSE was built around a number of tenets. These tenets included the following one:
“To maintain a near parity of pass percentage of the candidates in the current year vis-à-vis preceding years, subject-wise and overall.”
The farcical pass percentage was allowed to continue because of this provision. A mistake once committed was mandated to be perpetuated. It continued on account of another reason. Every stakeholder was happy with this delusion. The student was obviously happy because he got more marks. He was consciously oblivious of the fact that he didn’t deserve as many marks. The teacher was happy because, on average, each child scored more. The school could claim distinction even though it didn’t actually exist. The governments were happy because the State was seen to be performing well.
There was nothing legally wrong in what was happening but to my mind, it was not only ethically incorrect, it was creating delusions in all stakeholders’ minds and this was not good for the country. Hence, it was needed to be corrected. Fortunately, the Union Minister for Human Resource Development also expressed grave concern over the issue during my initial few meetings. A strategy was evolved to take care of this malaise.
During my visits to the States and Union Territories (21 in the initial few months), the issue was discussed with the concerned authorities. Almost everyone agreed that this pernicious practice should be stopped but they were compelled to continue as others would not stop. Receiving the views of most of the States, I decided to convene a national meet on April 24, 2017, to discuss the issue. Quite surprisingly a consensus was arrived at. All the State boards, except Kerala, decided to stop awarding moderation of marks for upward revision/ spiking of marks from the current year and subject to amendment in the State regulations if required. Even the Kerala Board confirmed it would do away with moderation from the following year.
Consequent to these decisions, the respective State governments dispensed with the spiking of marks in the name of moderation. In Karnataka, the pass percentage dropped by around 8 percent. The Union Minister even complimented the State government for biting the bullet. In Punjab, the pass percentage fell by more than 10 percent. Many other states chose to face the truth as well.
CBSE was also one of the culprits that had joined the bandwagon of ‘spikers’. However, consequent to the decision taken in the meeting held on April 24, the organisation was now gearing up to do away with spiking. But influential parents of the wards in Delhi were not prepared to give up the illusion of a high percentage based on farcical spiking. Ironically, the list included politicians, civil servants and advocates whose children had appeared in standard XII and were not prepared to give up the bonanza of spiked marks.
The media too got involved and the interested parties managed to convey half-truths. A petition was filed in the High Court as well and it was alleged that CBSE was changing the ‘goal post’ midway. It was difficult to fathom how doing away with across-the-board spiking of marks could be construed as ‘changing the goal post’. The High Court ordered that moderation of marks should continue the way it had been done during the previous years. There was no mention of spiking in the order. CBSE chose to follow the orders in letter and spirit on the direction of the Union Minister. Everyone seemed to be happy as the pass percentage did not drop.
What was in fact sacrificed was a principled stand to do away with spiking. To me, it was a huge embarrassment as we had failed to live up to our words. I also wonder today about the actual academic performances of students assessed under this system as the delusionary farce continues.
—Anil Swarup is former Secretary, Government of India and author of the book 'Not Just A Civil Servant'. Parts of this column are from his forthcoming book 'Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant'. The views expressed are personal