Why we must stop celebrating our board exam toppers

(This widely-shared article by me appeared in DailyO on 30th May, 2018)

Some things never change.

When I was a board exam topper in 1993 and 1995 (10thand 12th, West Bengal board), I became an instant celebrity in my town. Journalists from several newspapers thronged my house. All the obligatory details about me was asked and duly reported in the newspapers — how many hours per day I studied, what I wanted to be in the future.

Since then, 25 years have gone by — but media, and common people remain as obsessed about the board exam results as they were then. Celebrating the toppers is only one part of the game. There are relentless media reports about all aspects of the exam. How a good Samaritan cop helped a stranded board exam student reach his exam center. How a son of a rickshaw-puller got 93%.

While I do not mean to belittle these students — the fact remains that the so-called ‘achievements’ mask a bigger malady within our system. Celebration of board-exam related achievements is a way to dupe us into believing that this rote-learning-oriented hoax is a significant predictor of future success.

Be under no illusion — it is not.

The board exams of most of our boards test memory-driven retention. They do not test one’s ability to logically reason and think. They do not test the ability of the students to solve new problems. Neither do they test their ability to articulate something new through their writing.

In several boards, the past questions serve as an indicator of what kind of questions might appear this year. Sometimes questions are even repeated verbatim. In such a situation, memorization of answers of such probable questions certainly pays. Even if the questions are not repeated, they are often directly from the textbooks — requiring no thinking or analysis.

To survive and do well in life and work — we require thinking skills. We require the ability to solve a new problem. We need the ability to cogently communicate about new issues at hand. None of those are tested in our celebrated board exams.

In a way, by feeding the frenzy surrounding the board exams, the media help perpetuate the illusion that some learning must be happening in all these years at school. It gives the common people some comfort. Board exams are the culmination of all the schooling received in our childhood years. When we celebrate it, the education we receive is indirectly validated.

In truth, we do not receive much education in our schools. In international tests like PISA or TIMMS, India ranks at the very bottom. Bill Gates, when he came to India last year, said that we expect too little of our education system. That’s really at the heart of the problem.

We do not expect deep thinking-orientation in our exams or in our syllabus — instead, successfully memorizing a few pages becomes a cause for celebration. We do not expect our most successful people to become teachers. As a result of this low expectation, we do not question this gigantic hoax that passes for education. We do not ask for more — from our educationists, politicians and school leaders.

A good way to cover the board exams would be to do some deep analysis. What has been the career path of the board exam toppers of the past? What sort of financial success they attained in life, compared to the non-toppers? How many of them have taken the path less travelled and contributed to making the world a better place?

But it may be too much to ask for deeper analysis. Media must give people what they want to hear. But in a way, they also shape what people want. As a result, we remain stuck in a never-ending vicious cycle. Nobody asks the real question — what did this education really give us?

This year, after the board exam results are announced, let’s not give in to the frenzy. Let’s ask ourselves — does this really matter?

Let’s focus on learning the real skills needed in life. And let’s ask our governments to reform the exams so that we can really have an exam whose toppers are worth celebrating.

Founder, The Levelfield School. Writes on education and society.

Founder, The Levelfield School. Writes on education and society.