Didn't you get 100 per cent in CBSE humanities? Sorry, you're too original

How did board exam subjects like history or political science become high scorers like maths? And what have such high marks meant for originality of thought?

 |  5-minute read |   01-06-2018
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If I were in charge of admissions in humanities and social science BA honours courses in a college, I would look for good candidates whose Class XII scores in these subjects were between 65 and 85 per cent. I am sure that the students who score above 85 or 90 per cent are also good and hardworking students – but they are probably meant for other areas.

Every summer, you hear about toppers who have scored 499 out of 500. What exactly do these kinds of marks show?

Mathematics is regarded as a scoring subject. If you are so well-prepared that you can solve the whole paper at an uninterrupted speed, you end up getting cent per cent marks. Something similar applies to Physics and Chemistry. The kind of speed the highest scorers demonstrate in these subjects is not necessarily a sign of deep engagement, but they are certainly worth looking at for admission to first year honours in these subjects.

But it is hard to say the same thing for subjects like literature and the social sciences. How do students in these areas end up getting full marks?

That is an interesting question.

Let me offer four possible answers and you can tick off the one you think is right:

a. The humanities no longer demand a reflective or nuanced understanding.

b. Some students work so hard that they make no mistake whatsoever.

c. All questions are of an objective type.

d. None of the above.

You will be tempted to think that the correct choice lies between the first two.

There is some truth in these choices, but they don’t offer us the real picture of what is going on. The third answer is positively wrong, except in a metaphorical sense.

The correct answer is ‘d’ – and it asks us to think again.

Last year, I followed the case that a Class XII student had filed in a court against the marks she had been given in political science. Her overall marks were above 90 per cent, but in political science, she got only 70. Her legal struggle ultimately forced the Board to show her the marked answer sheet. It demonstrated how exactly she had lost the marks she deserved.

cbse_060118081829.jpgWhat did the system give me? Scores achieved in Board exams aren't always reliable indicators of students’ abilities. Photo: PTI

Her answers were in her own language, using words that didn’t match the NCERT text on which all the questions were based. A one-mark question was: ‘How far do you agree with the statement that cultural globalisation is dangerous not only for poor countries but for the entire globe?’

Her answer was: ‘I do not agree with this statement as cultural globalisation leads to enhanced cultures with newer combinations arising from external influences, cultural heterogenisation and greater influence of all cultures.’

You might think that this answer is brilliant.

The evaluator didn’t think so.

It was awarded zero.

How did the evaluator decide that she deserved a zero, even though the answer she gave was thoughtful?

By asking this question, we get closer to answering the question posed in my multiple choice test above. Evaluators are not supposed to ponder or reflect on a student’s answer. All they are supposed to do is to match it with the ‘model’ answer the Board has given them. In this case, the ‘model’ answer used by evaluators was:

’Yes, cultural globalisation does lead to cultural homogenisation which affects all countries as it causes shrinkage of the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the entire globe’.

It is widely believed, and generally true, that the Board’s ‘model’ answer reflects the prescribed NCERT text. So, let us turn to the NCERT textbook ‘Contemporary World Politics’. This is what the textbook says in Chapter 9, on page 143, ‘It would be a mistake to assume that cultural consequences of globalisation are only negative. Cultures are not static things and all cultures accept outside influences all the time... Sometimes external influences simply enlarge our choices, sometimes they modify our culture without overwhelming the traditional.’

If you compare the student’s answer with the ‘model’ answer, you will conclude that she is closer to the textbook. The ‘model’ answer tries to simplify and flatten the attempt the textbook was making, in order to promote critical thinking. The student’s answer is both original and creative.

These are precisely the qualities for which she was punished, not just in this question but throughout the paper.

In many other questions, she lost marks because her answer was slightly longer than the desired answer or differently worded. But there are answers where she is dot-on – and still loses marks.

ga_060118082057.jpgTightly packed: Does the education system want us all to look – and be – exactly the same? Photo: PTI

For instances, in analyzing the biggest constraints on American hegemony, a 6-mark question, the desired answer mentions the ‘institutionalised architecture’ of the American state based on the division of power, free press and NATO. The student mentions all three, but uses her own words. She uses ‘engineering of the government’ instead of ‘architecture of the state’ used in the textbook and the ‘model’ answer.

For such difference of vocabulary, she gets 3 out of 6.

Clearly, she was expected to cram the exact words from the textbook or some exam guide.

A single case, you might argue, cannot illustrate how thousands of students are marked. The unfortunate fact is that the case I have discussed does point to a common reality. Scores achieved in Board exams are not reliable indicators of the students’ interest in a subject or engagement with it. Very high marks merely indicate that the student had put in hard labour to prepare for the exams in the conventional sense of memorising the text or the answers given in a guidebook. That’s it.

A student who enjoyed studying the subject and developed his or her own perspective on different topics is unlikely to get the highest marks.

Also read: CBSE should be ashamed for allowing students to score 499 out of 500 marks


Krishna Kumar Krishna Kumar

Author is former director of NCERT.

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