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How COVID-19 Disrupted Exams and Education in India and the World

Jun 8, 2021 6:10 AM 5 min read

For students, the effects of COVID-19 have been manifold - and long-lasting.

Generation Z has been forced to spend over a year of their formative period in life stuck at home, glued to screens, separated from friends, classmates and teachers, unable to make the memories and mistakes every youngster has to make and learn from.

What's more, India’s youth now face a frighteningly uncertain future with dim job prospects and lacklustre economic growth. The sluggish vaccination drive and the prospect of a prolonged pandemic make the horizon bleaker. 

COVID-19 and Indian Education

The education system has invariably been upended, with some of the emerging trends expected to be significant movers even post-pandemic. A notable example is online education, which has boomed (much to the joy of the ed-tech startup scene).

On the flip side, the shift to digital classes has affected tens of millions negatively - after all, not all kids have the privilege of owning tablets, laptops and a reliable internet connection. The effects of poorer children being left behind - or even forced to drop out - will have serious long-term ramifications, particularly in exacerbating the gender and rural-urban divide in Indian education.


Exams and COVID-19

Assessing a student’s grasp over the syllabus is necessary and non-negotiable for schools and colleges.

But how do you conduct an offline examination in the era of social distancing? You can conduct them online, yes, but this would be unfair on the vast majority of students who don’t possess the digital infrastructure required to complete a timed examination. Or even prepare for one at a time when most of us know someone who tested positive for the virus or succumbed to it.


All A-Board

In 2020, the outstanding CBSE board exams, scheduled for July, were cancelled amid the First Wave. It was decreed that Class 10 students be assessed based on their performance in the last three exams. For Class 12 students, pre-board exam marks were to be the criteria. Other school boards followed suit. Many states had cancelled state-board tests even earlier.

FYI: Last year, CBSE came up with an alternate marking scheme wherein the marks in each remaining paper was calculated by taking the average of best three papers for students who had written four papers, of two best papers for those who had written three, and including internal marks for those students who had written two or less papers.

This year, Indian students are drowning in déjà vu. For the second summer straight, India is suffering through a surge in infections and deaths - only this time, the Wave is far more deadly. On Tuesday, the CBSE boards were cancelled. ICSE followed suit. The assessment criteria are yet to be disclosed. State-level board exams in some states have already been cancelled, with junior students to be promoted without having to take their final internal exams.

Just as last year, board exam-bound students would be given the option of taking the exams at a later and safer date. This option is particularly for those who missed writing earlier school-level tests due to medical emergencies at home and for those without smartphones or laptops.

BTW: When it comes to competitive and public exams, the story is different. Many were conducted last year after a few delays. The same is likely to hold true for 2021. This includes papers like NEET, JEE, CLAT and the UPSC Civil Services Exam.


Testing Worldwide Waters

Naturally, Indian schools aren’t the only ones grappling with the exams-amidst-a-pandemic conundrum. To postpone, scale back or cancel - that is the question.

FYI: School closures disrupted the education of about 1.5 billion pupils.

Like India, many countries cancelled major examinations last year. These include the UK, France. Pakistan, Indonesia and Ireland. Assessments were based on performance in previous tests and/or individual assessments by teachers or schools. Now, the latter was problematic in some places like England, where the process was found to elevate biases against ethnic minorities, obese children or schools from less-developed regions.

Other countries went the opposite direction. Spain and Germany pushed ahead with university-level exams late last year despite being in the middle of Europe's worst outbreak. South Korea organised its (in)famously rigorous College Scholastic Ability Test for half-a-million high schoolers. Graduation tests were conducted after a six-week delay in Vietnam in August. Some 10 million Chinese school-leaving students wrote the university entrance exam in July. In January 2021, Japan proceeded with a two-day university entrance exam for 530,000 students despite a state of emergency being declared in many parts of the country.

In some countries, pre-pandemic reforms luckily helped schools deal with the pandemic better. In France, for example, an earlier reform meant that students entered their high school final exams with 40% of their marks already accounted for via internal assessments and practical tests. This made end-of-term evaluations easier and fairer. But in countries where everything depended on exams, schools scrambled.


The Great Debate

The pandemic has brought back to the surface the age-old debate over the relevance of test-taking in the first place.

Many argue that exams are a flawed metric to measure students’ competence or grasp over the syllabus. They are driven by rote learning and superficial understanding, add to stress, are limited in scope, and are poorly run in many countries. Practical assessments, internal projects, viva evaluations etc., this side of the house opines, are fairer metrics.

On the other side of the aisle, the contention is that despite their drawbacks exams are better than other kinds of assessment. They are surer with a well-defined framework and more objective in that they can’t be swayed by teachers’ personal biases. Not having an end-of-term exam can also be stressful since students would be judged on their coursework throughout the school year, which means the burden of perennial oversight and less time for other kinds of learning.

FYI: There seems to be a general trend across countries in favour of the second side i.e. in favour of lowering the stakes of exams on a student’s report card. For instance, as per the 2020 National Education Policy (NEP), board exams will be made “easier” and remodelled to test core capacities and competencies rather than memorisation skills.

This debate notwithstanding, exam-taking is surely facing a litmus test thanks to the coronavirus. For better or for worse, schools and colleges are likely to retain a more diverse system to grade and evaluate students even post-COVID.


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