The Bihar cheating scandal created a brouhaha, and made for good headlines, startling photos and agitation on social media. Which is, of course, good news for all news outlets.
As with all debates on education, the symptom got attacked, not the disease. Which in this case is rote-based exams, and success in those exams insuring entry into college and a good job with consequent social mobility. The Board exams are just as important now as they were 20 years ago, the HRD minister Smriti Irani has talked of making class 10 exams compulsory again so that students do not slacken.
On the opposite side of the debate is continuous comprehensive evaluation, which means till class 8, students get promoted from one class to another without any exam. At a two-day conference in BR Ambedkar University this week, teachers discussed how this is leading to many parents showing a casual attitude to learning: "Mera bachcha toh aise hi pass ho jayega".
Continuous and comprehensive evaluation was supposed to be a way out of reducing the burden on the schoolgoer, weighed down by a big bag and heavier parental expectations. If that's not working well, how do we ensure that a student passing out (called "graduating" the world over) of school has acquired a certain learning level? Standardised Board exams must be the answer, and more of such exams ought to help. Never mind that students need parents and cheat helps to scale five-storey buildings to pass these exams. What are a few broken bones in the way of good marks in high-stakes exams?
The whole world has struggled with standardised exams, and India is no different. The SATs in the US have had their share of trouble but only in India do standardised tests reach such ridiculous levels of mania.
The boom of coaching institutes, I visited those in Kota for reporting in Mint, show the country-wide nature of the exam mafia - it spawns successful businesses and test-prep companies built on coaching for engineering, medical and IAS exams. Kota had a surreal feel to it, 15 and 16-year-olds ejected out of their homes to go study in this town, eating at roadside dhabas, sleeping in rented rooms, studying alone for hours to take a shot at the JEE.
What are these poor sods to do than take a little help for Boards? Solving this "cheating" situation has complicated answers. Hiring better teachers, and empowering teachers to evaluate students within a classroom, yet evaluate them with fairness and rigour, not just "pass" them as part of a policy, is one of the answers. Instead, we have a rotting government school system run by para-teachers because they cost less, and a private school universe where only the rich need apply. Both systems chase "completion of syllabus", original thinking be damned. A less paid teacher is inevitably also less educated, less committed, and believes copying from the blackboard is the best way of teaching.
The solutions to India's education woes: bad quality, rote-learning, lack of excellence, unprepared graduates, are not headline-mongering or give good copy. That's why budget after budget gives us more IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS, fuelling the test-prep industry.
More such institutes means more exams - and more cheating.