The numbers game

May 08, 2022

A phenomenon that’s referred in academic circles as grade inflation

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So your niece got 1,100 marks out of 1,150 but was still denied admission to a medical college of her choice. Sounds familiar?

You may have heard similar stories in the recent couple of years. One lucky girl got ‘full marks’ in her board exams in KPK. For all we know, our ‘super students’ may well be granted 1,500 out of 1,150, given the current trend. And, no, the upward trends in maximum marks obtained show no letup. This phenomenon is referred in academic circles as grade inflation.

A flagrantly obnoxious example of grade inflation was observed in the last two years when Covid-19 peaks led to grading formula based automatic promotions. The formula devised by the exam boards was so lenient that a vast majority of students got A+ grade in several secondary and intermediate education boards. I’m sure this gave headaches to professional colleges over who to accept and who to turn down.

Let’s step back and ask our gullible selves if all these top-scorers are really super smart and they perform so well in exams that they are granted cent percent marks. So, how is it decided that a kid deserves 99 percent marks? It involves three things: rote learning, school/ tuition reinforcement of rote learning and finally, and most importantly, presentation of exam paper as ornately as a royal wedding cake.

The weakest link in our examination system is the paper checkers. This scribe had the chance to talk to two of them. (Their names are being withheld at their request.) These miserly paid workers are required to check hundreds upon hundreds of examination papers in a very short time (sometimes they are required to check a paper in less than 5 minutes), in order to earn a decent enough daily wage. Obviously, they look for shortcuts. A properly ‘presented’ answer sheet with headings and standard answers makes their job easier than, say, a well argued, well researched answer that isn’t presented well.

One of the paper checkers put it aptly, “Our kids are being taught circus tricks, they can jump hoops like circus animals but don’t know why they are jumping the hoops.”

From where do the kids learn standard answers to 50-odd questions per subject that are rotated to form exams question papers? School and tuition centres rigorously put students through their rote learning paces by hammering those 50 answers into the young brains until they cannot get it wrong. The routine is so rigorous that kids have very limited time to do anything else other than study.

These institutions have taken the art of attempting the exam to a whole new level. Even the matriculation and intermediate students are required to write dotted line writing improvement registers. There are constant tests of the same material. Extra reading is discouraged as it may confuse the student.

Standardisation is the word here. All students must give the same answer in a neatly presented package so that the paper checkers don’t have to fret.

The result of such results is that our kids cannot think independently; they know answers to boards’ favourite questions, but they cannot analyse or put forth arguments for their answers. Instead of additional reading they are limited to a few study guides. Like our electronic media their world view is extremely narrow.

Let’s ask ourselves: Is it better to have a kid that tops the board but has a narrow knowledge base and limited understanding of the world around him?

Who is to blame then? I think, all of us. We want success in exams and admissions but not a holistic and complete person. Do we, as parents, want to encourage our children to read and learn things other than their education courses? Do we, as teachers, want to work a little extra and inspire our students to think critically? Will the examination boards ever discourage rote learning and focus on content? Will the MCQs replace essay-type questions and take away the power from paper checkers? Is there any point in blaming the government — as delinquent as it always has been?

Note: There are several education systems in the country, but this article is limited to the matriculation/ intermediate system

The writer is a Lahore-based lawyer and freelance journalist

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