The Politics of Examinations and Marks

In the month of September, it is generally time for the First Term Examination.

Teachers have examinations on their brains. Completion of syllabus, setting Question Papers and then correction of the Answer Papers.

Parents have examinations on their brains. ‘Have you prepared well! ‘How did you finish studying so fast?’ ‘Go back and study some more,’ etc. etc.

A class 3 student came to school and with her hands thrown up in exasperation, and announced to the teacher, ‘Because of X’s mother, I had to stay up till 11:00pm and wake up at 5:00am.’ X’s mother is making detailed Question Papers of about 50–60 different types of questions on a small portion. Mind you, this is done for every subject. Then she very generously posts it on the ‘Parents WhatsApp group’. The rest of the ‘Tiger moms’ are then getting their children to solve and practice the papers. This is regardless of the revision being done by the teachers. What yeoman service!! I won’t be surprised if she starts a business of selling ‘Revision Question Papers’ for Primary classes. All for marks!!

Students have examinations on their brains. That is only right and expected of them. Here are a couple of questions students ask before a task — Is it important for the exam? Will we get marks for the project / activity? If the answer is ‘yes’, then they get down to work or else it can be postponed or maybe not done at all.

And post pandemic— students are stressed out, some getting anxiety attacks, not sleeping well, all this before and during the examination.

Being a Consultant to a few schools, I too have examinations on my brain! Checking to see if the teachers are on par with the scheme of work!

Going through Question Papers while putting myself in the shoes of the child after figuratively removing my own, I ask myself -

  • Is the Question Paper, too long, too short, easy or difficult?
  • Is it creative, thought-provoking and interesting?
  • Is the weightage right and is it catering to a differentiated group of children?
  • Is the weightage of marks right for each question?

Ultimately it all comes down to marks and a Report card!

There are dilemmas around the whole examination system, bringing into focus our values and I mean the values of all stakeholders.

Let me share a case study of a student whom I met a few years ago. The case study is being presented bit by bit followed by a few questions. A pause for thinking is suggested.

I met 14 year old ‘J’ after the first unit test was over and the teachers were distributing corrected papers with marks. J had worked hard for her tests; however, the marks in a few subjects did not match her assessment of her performance. She therefore told her mother inflated marks in the respective subjects. One of the teachers decided to enter the marks into her register by asking the students to call out their marks in her subject. J called out the inflated mark — a bell rang and having doubts, the teacher asked J to meet her in the break with her answer paper.

J picked up another child’s paper, changed the name and presented it to the teacher. The game was up — the teacher recognized the handwriting.

What are J’s values?

What about the mother?

Why did ‘J’ give her mother inflated marks?

What are the values of the teacher?

J was brought for counselling for this episode and a few other issues. During the discussion, I wanted J to realize that it does not pay to be dishonest. She countered my view point and told me that there were examples in her own class who were getting away with dishonesty and cheating.

What would you do next in your discussion with ‘J’?

What values can you identify?

I told her learning was for life, and at some stage, sooner or later the lack of learning, knowledge and skills will catch up.

J said the future did not matter. What was important was the here and now. She argued that some of the children who cheated got high marks. This earned them a good name and reputation. They were praised by the teachers for their hard work and commitment. They were assigned leadership tasks and were constantly in the limelight.

Do you agree with J’s point of view?

How do you think she picked up these values?

Here was a dilemma.

J had advertently or inadvertently picked up (in my opinion) the wrong values.

I think we have all faced situations where we had to make choices.

I remember just before my SSLC Board exams, a cousin sent word (no phones in the house) to say that he had got hold of some question papers that had leaked and if I would like to have them?

Dilemma — Should I or should I not?

Why are Question papers leaked? This is happening on a regular basis right up to recruitment exams. Apparently, greed for money on the one hand and desperation for marks on the other that would set one up for life.

This desperation or greed for marks starts early in life when parents are not satisfied with the marks — count and recount, and send children back or go themselves to the teacher to fight for the ½ or 1 mark.

I have been hearing some sad stories of how parents and grandparents have helped children write their exams during online classes –

  • Hiding to be out of the line of the camera and helping the child to write.
  • Dictating answers thinking they are not heard.

Now, they want to know why the children are not doing as well in offline exams.

Principals and teachers are also involved in the dishonest quest for marks.

In one of my earlier blogs I had mentioned a case of a Principal who called the children of influential / rich parents to her office to rewrite the papers. I had been warned by a colleague and hence kept a copy of my marks. When the mark sheet came back there were glaring changes.

So yes, we are talking about the erosion of values and the politics of the examination system and marks.

And in all of this the student remains a puppet to be pulled by different strings.

Do I have an answer?

Sadly, I don’t.

Wither joy of learning, hard work, determination, resilience and a sense of accomplishment and achievement!!

One final Question — Do cheaters prosper?

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Phyllis Farias

Educational Consultant with 2 passions in life: the Child — from toddler to adolescent, and Education — education philosophy and psychology