Time bombs planted by the UPA: Grade inflation in education system

Much was discussed about the uninterrupted supply of scams and scandals during the UPA regime. Unfortunately, what has not been discussed sufficiently, is the havoc wrecked by UPA in the education space. Unlike cases of financial irregularities, the consequences of mischievous or ill-informed tinkering with the education system, show up at least 5 years later. They start to show up only once a few batches of students graduate from the changed system and enter the workforce.

In a nation plagued with poorly designed rules and laws, environmental issues, rickety infrastructure and unplanned cities, our only hope is to graduate at least a couple of batches of well-educated and smart students. Hopefully, once the workforce sees the arrival of products of a good education system, we might be able to see the next generation take the lead and fix issues. Once the judges, lawyers, civil servants, entrepreneurs, politicians, academics and teachers are picked from a well-educated and astute batch of students, we might be able to fix some of our critical issues. The number of issues currently plaguing the system is well beyond the reach of a handful of individuals to fix.

Unfortunately, the UPA years did exactly the reverse. Instead of working on improving access and quality, they accomplished the reverse. It is likely that some of this was done at the behest of NGOs. In a society fragmented via quotas drawn out arbitrarily on the basis of caste and communal cracks, the UPA exacerbated issues by partitioning the education sector in a shockingly sectarian manner as the Reality Check India blog covers so comprehensively in a variety of posts.

Here I will restrict the discussion to something which hasn’t received enough scrutiny: Grade inflation. For the uninitiated, Grade inflation is the tendency to award progressively higher academic grades for work that would have received lower grades in the past.

This is the graph of the median percentage in the CBSE Class 12 examinations. It shot up by nearly 8% between 2004 and 2016. This happened in the regime of a sycophantic IAS officer who faithfully implemented many of Kapil Sibal’s disastrous ideas such as the CCE which replaced the Grade 10 board exam. In 2016, over 11% of all candidates scored a full 10/10 GPA in the CCE style of assessment. The practical component of Science stream subjects have been reduced to a joke, as nearly everyone receives a full score of 30/30 or 29/30.  Students who have barely attended labs during the school year manage to score full marks in practical work. Guidelines for correcting papers are such that grammatical mistakes even in language papers, do not invite much penalty.

Grade inflation compounds and leads to a rapid decline in standards and it also conceals any possibility of detecting or arresting that decline. It was revealed, that in 2016, CBSE awarded as many as 16 extra marks in Mathematics in the Class 12 exam. And that the scores on marksheets, were often as much as 10% higher than what the candidates had actually scored. As s country which ranked only above Kyrgyzstan in the PISA test, it is unacceptable that we turn off an alarm just because the music isn’t as sweet as we’d like it to be.

Only 4.7% of the students scored above 90% in CBSE 2013 exams (class 12) but in CBSE 2016, this corresponding fraction was 7.7%. Similar trends are observed in the ICSE and ISC examinations, where this ratio jumped from 7.1% in ISC 2013 to 11.8% in ISC 2016.  A score of 90% indicated excellence, even just a decade ago, but now many of the good schools have an average score of well above 85% thanks to this unprecedented run of inflation of marks. Subject-wise histograms reveal atrocious grade distortion and the curves do not even remotely resemble bell shaped curves or normal or Poisson distributions.

The current government has made some effort to clamp down on the issue of grade inflation, but the domain of assessment and the calibration of scores between different boards is something which requires the inputs of academics and statisticians. Inflation also becomes a cat and mouse game where all school boards start misreporting scores to compete with each other. Not only does this need to be nipped in the bud, but we also need an exam-watchdog organisation to ensure that examining bodies stick to standards. If this government does manage to swing the axe on grade inflation and the generous award of extra marks, it could be the defusal of a ticking time-bomb, though it is already quite late. Stray cases of  “saffronization of education” are unwanted, but they are trivial issues in comparison.

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