City City Bang Bang, Columns

The trouble with exams?

A recent recruitment ad released by the IIT went viral. It was advertising a position for a dog handler, in itself an unusual vocation to need in an educational institution, and compounded the bizarreness by listing in the list of possible qualifications a B Tech. Before a horde of bright eyed IIT students could make a beeline for this job, it clarified that a mistake had been made and they were actually looking for someone with a Bachelor in Veterinary Science degree, no doubt to walk the dog along more scientifically endorsed lines.

Regardless of whether the institution really made a mistake or was covering up its embarrassment, the fact that such a position needs any formal degree is by itself a question worth pondering. Qualifications when used in this manner become dead symbols, for they are sought not for their use-value but for their ownership-value. Having a degree, even when not needed, is deemed to be more important than having the requisite skills or knowledge. Consider the kind of qualified resumes that crowd applications of positions like peons and watchmen in government jobs. 

Apart from underlining the employment situation in the country, what this sheds light on is the relationship between exams, qualifications and careers. The gap occurs at each of several levels- between what is taught, what is learnt, what is tested, what gets people employed and what is actually used.

The idea of exams is by its very nature imperfect. Exams ensure that knowledge is transient; the very act of mugging for tests in a compressed period of time and regurgitate on an assigned day is an incentive for subsequent amnesia. If learning has genuinely occurred, then one should be able to display it, or better apply it, at any time, without needing any specific preparation. The only thing exams do well is to test our ability to take exams. In reality, exams work because we need a method of evaluation that is standardized, can test individual ability in some form and is relatively easy to administer. 

The key question is whether exams should look to the past or the future? Should they be only focused on measuring what has been learnt from the ‘syllabus’, a wholly constructed notion of what students need to know, or should it test how well prepared the student is for the next stage of his life? Given the fact that virtually all knowledge is a keystroke away, this excessive focus on knowledge retention and reproduction is a vestige of the past.

What it fosters is an exams-for-the sake-of-exams culture. For instance, the idea that people need to take a year off to study for the IAS or an IIT is ridiculous.  Students are being taught how to pass exams far more seriously than the subjects that they are meant to have learnt. An industry of coaching classes and intensive training has sprung up, trying to game the system. 

The larger problem with exams in their current form is that they bear no relation to what is needed to succeed in one’s later life. Most selection processes are about finding ways to eliminate candidates rather than select the right ones. The IAS entrance test is not designed to test a candidate’s capability to handle the complex administrative tasks that need to be performed, choosing instead to largely focus on how well a candidate knows her chosen subjects. The MBA entrance exam tests for analytical ability and quick thinking. If anything, the bias is towards a shallow and flashy kind of intelligence that is more at home with reductive tasks than with fluid, complex systemic problems.

The ability to learn, think critically, respond to unfamiliar situations using familiar concepts, create new concepts when necessary, use knowledge in conjunction with emotional wisdom, works with people and in teams, inspire people working with you- these are some general skills that are useful across jobs. Currently, we don’t even attempt to measure these in any systematic way.

When engineering degrees are handed out at will, the degree becomes meaningless. When every other child gets 90%, marks become worthless. We are using a method of evaluation that does not serve the purpose for which it was created, and we continue to use it purely out of convenience. Any change in the examination format is met by howls of protest, because it disturbs the entire edifice that has come to depend on exams continuing to be what they are. It is far too expensive to fix the problem, and far too many vested interests depend on exams for a real change to be possible. 

The idea of merit, a favourite word of so many, loses meaning. The real question is merit in what? An arbitrary process of elimination that uses criteria that are not related to what a job specifically needs is nothing but an elaborately disguised lottery. An objective yardstick that measures the wrong metric is effectively useless. It also breeds an unhealthy obsession with exams and marks and misdirects the purpose of education. 

The NEP has some interesting ideas on how to reform exams, but it remains to be seen as to how these will be implemented. The proposals to do away the antiquated rigidity of the Science/Commerce/Arts streams and allowing for flexibility in choosing subjects, the idea of conducting exams in grades 3, 5, and 8  to ‘test achievement of basic learning outcomes, and application of knowledge in real-life situations’ as well making Board exams easier and focus on testing ‘core capacities, competencies rather than months of coaching or memorisation” are all progressive in intent, but will face challenges in implementation.

The movement away from a tokenist, qualifications based testing mindset to one which encourages inference, analysis and application of concepts is likely to be a long haul. Unless the change is of a fundamental kind, and a more holistic approach is adopted for the purpose of evaluation, we will continue to churn out students with great grades and worthless degrees.