Are Examinations Needed?

(The existing examination system is no longer an accurate barometer of learning. It too is
a victim of vicious corrupt practices. ANIL SARWAL examines the ills that afflict the system.

Examinations have lost their validity in the corrupt system in which we exist. Any person with insight knows what we have today in the name of examinations is a mere formality. Examination results are no more a measure of one's ability. On the contrary, they could as well be an indication of one's manipulative power. Therefore, most of the examinations conducted by the universities and boards have been derecognized over the years. No longer, for instance, is a student admitted to a medical or an engineering college on the basis of his score at the plus two level (earlier Pre-Medical or pre-Engineering) alone. besides the entrance examinations for admission to professional courses, most employers offering lucrative jobs are now resorting to their own tests and interviews.

Under the circumstances, it is but natural to try and find out what is wrong with our examinations. Though after some reflection on the prevailing situation, it would seem much better to invert the question and instead ask: 'What is right with our examinations, if at all anything?' But let us begin at the beginning.

Obviously, in a few hours examination it is hardly ever possible to test with accuracy what a person has learnt over a much longer period of time. All of us who have passed through a formal system of examination at some stage or another in our lives, are aware of the pitfalls in this system. A person may not be lucky enough to get the questions on the areas that he has mastered, or he may not simply be good at rote learning. He may be ill or burdened with some other more pressing problems at that time. He may be unable to express himself in writing or through the language of the examination, etc. In fact, there are too many extraneous factors here to be controlled.

Further, the test questions themselves may not be appropriate, valid or reliable, which is mostly the case in our universities where generally the examiners do not have nay training in testing. Most examiners, therefore, set questions intuitively and mostly that does not help. Every year there is a volume of letters published in the columns of prominent dailies complaining of either a very tough paper or a paper which had questions from outside the prescribed syllabus.

Interestingly, in most such cases, the universities/boards involved tend to defend themselves to the point of stupidity and thus the genuine complaints of the examinees fall on deaf ears. I know of cases where examiners who had set the questions from outside the prescribed syllabi were not only allowed to go Scot free (after the setting up of investigating committees, etc.) but even continued to be the examiners for that paper for the next few years or so.

Of course, we all know about copying and mass-copying. I remember from experience that those who copied were branded as the black sheep of the lot and intelligent boys shunned their company. Now-a-days, however, there seems to be no such distinction. On my recent invigilation duties I was surprised to see the very intelligent boys trying to copy at the first opportunity they got. There were no feelings of shame not to talk of the feelings of guilt.

In yet another incident, a few students whom I caught copying from the torn pages of a help book in a home examination, asked me not to tear the slips because they were to make use of them in the final examinations.

Copying now seems to have become an integral part of our examination system promoted by the teachers who do not teach, the parents who want their wards to somehow get through with flying colures, the principals who would like to boast of glorious results. For the students, copying has simply become their birthright !

The stories how the strict invigilators have been severely beaten up, threatened and humbled are numerous. I recently learnt of an incident in which some 50 students of class XI taking their geography test at a local college, threatened their invigilator with dire consequences if he dared to stop them from copying.

There are cases of lady teachers having been beaten up and the miscreants allowed to get away unquestioned, unpunished. Of course, those brave teachers are at tomes crowned with awards and medals for the acts of courage which the authorities themselves could not have even thought of undertaking. The whole thing has become so gruesome, so obnoxious, so open that no one even takes notice of these 'small happenings'. Even when teachers refuse to go on invigilation duties because they feel their lives are in danger, we just sit back and watch or at best hope that somehow the examinations will be conducted on time.

I could go on and on with these tales of how the superintendents at some examination centers were forced to ask the students to 'copy quietly' and not make a noise, how the flying squads in some areas had to face the 'students' flying squads', and how subsequent flying squads refused to visit those areas, but that is not precisely my purpose.

The question is what can be done. Can we do away with the examination system altogether, or should we? The answer seems to be a definite no. For we need to test the merits of an individual for his appointment to a job; we need to certify that an individual has successfully undertaken a course and that he has actually learnt new things during the course, etc. All research till now has conclusively upheld the validity of holding examinations in one form or the other. Though there are a few universities in the world, may be less than ten in number which award degrees or diplomas to their students without holding a formal examination. Their system of education is based on a strict schedule of compulsory readings, home assignments, etc. But most of the students seek admission to the courses in these countries to learn and not merely to get a degree. We cannot think of introducing such revolutionary reforms in our system which is already falling apart. Patchwork or the ideas which are too revolutionary would not help. So examinations have to stay, at least for some more time, whatever may be their limitations.

There are cases of lady teachers having been beaten up and the miscreants allowed to get away unpunished.

The fact is that honest examinations are directly related to the values the society upholds. Many broad changes in the outlook of students, parents, teachers and society at large are required before we can even think of some real reforms in the existing examination system. How can, for instance, a parent who himself indulges in underhand dealings ask his son to desist from copying ? How can a teacher who takes private tuition solely with a desire to make a fast buck refuse to help the candidate whom he has taught practically nothing during the whole year?

How can a principal who has himself asked an invigilator to allow a student to copy stop this person from helping other students if he so chooses? Why would a student not attempt to use unfair means when he sees his fellow students securing high marks in the practical for the questions that they have not been able to answer ? How can a vice-chancellor take action against an erring principal when he has himself been relaxing the minimum eligibility conditions for getting through in the various examinations to secure higher pass percentage for his university?

The same is true of many other problems which many of us are aware of, and would like to be taken care of. Here only introspection and self-restrain can help us.

Along with this, there is an urgent need to implement the examination reforms repeatedly suggested by the various commissions and committees in the last forty years. Essay type questions should be replaced by objective type ones wherever possible. Ways and means must be evolved to make the tests standardized, valid and reliable. The feedback received from the examinees must be carefully considered and the suggestions made by them incorporated in the next set of question papers. 

There is also need to shift from marks and percentages to a more rational system of evaluation, perhaps we should adopt the grade system being followed by many universities of the world. Strict measures need to be adopted to make the evaluation of answer scripts as accurate as possible. mere table marking will not help. The information desired should be broken into smaller bits and each bit assigned a certain weight age. This will go a long way to bring in the desired objectivity in marking.

Above all, examinations must not be allowed to exist in isolation; they should be brought closer to life. They should be closely related to the perceived goals of the examinee in having undertaken the course.

For the time being, we can only hope that wisdom will prevail in the end and examinations will at last regain their lost status. A lot of our problems will be reduced when examinations are once again seen as a true measure of a candidate's worth. For most of the students, examinations will then become a worth while challenge rather than the frustrating experience, which they are at present.

Above all, examinations should not be allowed to exist in isolation. They should be brought closer to life.