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Three Years Of Public Exams

This year the first batch in Tamil Nadu will write Board exams in Class XI and anxiety is peaking amongst the students & teachers

“If u keep exams i will gather my frnds and we will brake shops, bus, and everything,” a Class XI student wrote about the approaching board exams. His Whatsapp message, received by The Lede, was one of the more pronounced protests against the public exams for standard XI which have been introduced this year in Tamil Nadu.

Over 700 students have written to The Lede through social media channels and WhatsApp, as part of a State-wide social media campaign to help children deal with exam-related anxiety, started on February 14 this year. Launched by the State’s School Education Department, and helmed by The Lede, this social media helpline is the first initiative of its kind in the country to help students tide over exam related stress. Of the messages received from students, majority display anger and anxiety at the introduction of public exams for Standard XI.

“The question papers are tough. Always reading but not getting good marks. Sleeping only 3 or 4 hours. I feel depressed and even thought to commit suicide – I’m crying all the time,” said Sujatha, a Class XI student who reached out through WhatsApp.

Introduced in 2017-2018, State Board exams for Class XI, according to the State School Education Department, are to ensure that students are better prepared to take on academic challenges after school. “Some schools were teaching only Class XII portions for two years, and leaving out Class XI portions which are important to do well in competitive exams like NEET and JEE. Class XI portions were not being tested, and the only way to make the students learn was to have an exam,” said Pradeep Yadav, Principal Secretary to the Government, School Education Department.

Chennai-based educationist Balaji Sampath, Founder, Aid India, agreed that board exams for Class XI students are a good idea. “Class XI portions are the foundation for Class XII. If kids don’t learn these concepts, they can only mug up Class XI portions. Our problem is that schools and teachers want their students to score marks rather than learn. Without public exams, I don’t see how you can ensure a whole set of schools teach Class XI portions,” said Sampath.

Yet, many Class XI students reached out to register their protests against these exams and the stress that accompanies three consecutive years of public exams.

“I don’t have a problem writing the board exams, but I would like it if the issues in the system are addressed,” said Jayshree, a Class XI student. “The State Board syllabus is not updated. In commerce, we are still studying definitions of departmental stores and credit cards, which are so common now. Without changing the curriculum, they are changing everything else,” she said.

The focus on marks to ensure that students gain access to the best colleges and careers possible eclipses the importance of what they study and how they do so for these exams. Stale syllabi steal fewer headlines than announcements about exam dates and results. “Exams are like elections – the one event is more important than the year that precedes it. This hype around the exam creates stress. Someone has to look at what these students have learnt, but as a low key affair,” said Sampath.

A Lack Of Clarity, A Lot Of Stress

The introduction of the Class XI board exams are also meant to take the pressure off Class XII final exams. Instead of one single exam for 1200 marks, the same is being spread across two years. Students will now write two public exams for 600 marks each, and be given a consolidated mark sheet when they graduate from school. “Students can still go to Class XII even if they fail in up to three subjects in Class XI. They will have the option to clear their arrears in June and September of the following year,” said School Education Secretary Yadav.

The purpose of this move is to ensure that students do not waste a year if they fail some subjects in Class XI. Practical exams have also been introduced to make the exams more application-based, and the duration of the three-hour written exam has been shaved by 30 minutes. However, students like Jayshree worry that their scores will be affected since the aggregate of two years will be taken as a final score. “If I get 100 one year and lose marks the following year, my final score will be affected. There are constant exams, constant pressures. We are not able to go out or enjoy our age,” she said.

“Most of my physical health problems are because of Class XI exams. I’ve been waking up early and sleeping late to prepare. My parents say I should study and do well since the exam has already been announced, but they are worried about the stress it is causing,” said Ambika, a Class XI student from Karur district, who scored 471/ 500 in her Class X public exams.

Since August 2017, Ambika has written over 20 cycle tests, two term exams, and is currently writing her sixth full-portions revision exam. She said, “I don’t feel confident. I’m having a lot of difficulty in understanding how to prepare for this public exam. The uncertainty is causing a lot of anxiety. There is no clarity on where the questions will be from and how they should be answered. There are no previous years’ papers for reference. Teachers are also a little confused about how some answers will be scored.”

Jayshree explained how the change in the paper pattern contributes to this uncertainty – “What our seniors wrote for 200 marks, we now write for 90 marks. So we write the same answers they wrote for 20 marks – but now for a 5 mark question. Since teachers also don’t know how evaluation will be done, they are asking us to write the whole 20 mark answer. Even if we change one word, we lose marks. It will be good if the evaluation method is changed.”

Other grey areas are the newly introduced 2 and 3 mark questions. “We don’t know where the questions are going to come from. Different schools have different study materials for these questions – how do we know which to use?” asked Ambika.

“When a new system is introduced, we need to acclimatise to it. The opening opinion is never welcoming, but we will know its benefits only after a few years. It is a good step,” said a government school headmaster who did not want to be identified. “The only drawback is that we were given a clear picture about question paper pattern and the practical exam only in December.”

The public exam for Class XI was announced in August 2017 and a semblance of a pattern for the paper emerged only in December that year – simply not enough time for either students or teachers to wrap their heads around it. And for students used to rote learning for 12 out of 14 years of schooling, this is a terrifying prospect.

Rally Against Rote Learning

“Business maths is a difficult subject for me, and I don’t know how to score centum without a blueprint,” said Jayshree. For State Board exams in Classes X and XII, students are given a “blueprint” which tells them how many questions, and for how many marks, will be tested from each chapter. This staple which is used to prepare for State exams has been denied for those appearing for Class XI board exams for the first time this year.

“In Tamil Nadu, when they provide a question bank, the exact same questions show up in the exam. In a mathematics question, even the numbers are the same. So students just mug up the question and answer – the idea is that the more questions they memorise, the more marks they get. Students are putting in a huge amount of effort in memorising books, but learning very little out of it,” said educationist Sampath.

“Many students have been asking for a blueprint. This is not a good thing because it reveals everything about the exam. From next year onwards, I don’t think we will give out blueprints for any class,” said School Education Secretary Yadav.

While the move is meant to get students to learn their lessons thoroughly instead of studying selectively and by rote to score marks, students and teachers report that there is no change in the way they have prepared for the approaching exam. “Our system has continually produced students who have scored 99 and 98 because of rote learning. But in an exam, people do make mistakes, and they need the space to lose a few marks,” said Sampath.

“Parents and teachers are also forcing us to score high marks but the pattern is difficult to get the mark according to their expectation,” wrote Mahesh, a class XI student, to the WhatsApp helpline. He added, “If we get less marks in our 11 public examinations means there no way to move on in our life…” (sic)

Teaching What Needs To Be Taught

The spotlight on the exam takes the spotlight off the well-being of the child. Children are pushed to do their best, give their most, but are not taught to handle the stress that accompanies this phase of their lives. While Tamil Nadu has 10 mobile counsellors who reach out to students across 32 districts, it is not sufficient to help countless students handle their issues. “Some teachers who are interested in the development of children talk about life skills, while others just want to finish the syllabus. State schools can not handle students’ stress with their resources. We need in-house counsellors to handle behavioural issues. A student’s problems cannot be addressed without taking into consideration his social, economic and educational background – not all teachers have that skill,” said Jayaprakasam K, Headmaster, Government Higher Secondary School, Muthugoudanur, a village in Erode district.

Teachers, who often push students and contribute to the pressures they face, are usually reeling under a lot of stress themselves. Teachers handling Class XI now have to work harder to make distressed and disinterested students score optimally in an exam system that they are still struggling to understand. “Teachers need to learn how to teach kids so that they understand concepts and answer questions analytically – they need to know how to handle a question if it is different from the one in the question bank. This needs to be done in a step by step fashion over the years,” said Sampath.

“There are teacher training programs from time to time, but it is not enough to deal with issues on the ground. Teachers do not grasp what they are taught because they have many responsibilities already. Teachers are also under a lot of stress. So all changes within their minds will take years to happen,” explained Headmaster Jayaprakasam.

The current focus on high marks and rote learning hampers a person’s ability to think analytically. So for all that they are put through, these students might not have gained much. “Physics graduates cannot solve a Class IX question paper – then what is the purpose of his education? The problem is not with the student, but rather with the system that churns out so many like this. This exam, which pushes kids to understand concepts and not rely on rote learning, is helpful as the first step in solving the problem. The immediate change is stressful for the students, but it will have long term benefits. But it won’t mean anything without follow-up steps to deal with students’ stress or the quality of education they receive,” said Sampath.

(Student names changed to protect identity)

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