Terrible testing times

Geetha Durairajan

Close your eyes for two minutes and think of the most difficult examination you have ever taken in your life. If that was many years ago, think instead of an important examination you are helping your learners take. Mentally, put down one or two aspects of that examination that worried you and what you prayed for before you began writing. Chances are that most of us would have prayed or hoped that we or our learners/children would be able to write well, to remember our points, and not make any careless mistakes. If the paper was a very long one, we probably also hoped and prayed that we would be able to finish the paper in the stipulated time.

Two months ago, I happened to overhear a discussion among some doctoral students at my University; it bothered and disturbed me so much that I asked them and a few others (Arvind, Ramunni, Ram Raj, and Venkat) to come home and talk about this in greater detail. Unlike us ‘greater mortals’, their greatest worry (with respect to examinations) was not about their studying at all! It was something totally different; much more important but not something that most of us are aware of.

Their prayers or those of their parents are not that they remember all points, etc. Their earnest prayer is: “God, let me/my child get a good scribe today.”

Ramunni put it very well. He said, “My most fervent prayer before an examination is: Please ensure that I don’t get a headache by the end of the second hour.”

Venkat echoed these words and said, “Examinations are a psychological terror for us. Within the first 10-15 minutes we can assess the performance of the scribe; if that person is good, then we get an added energy and we do very well. If not, we are half dead even before the first half hour is over.”

And that was not all. Venkat continued, “We end up changing the words that we dictate to make sure they (the scribes) understand. I will start using one word and if I find that the scribe does not know that word, I have to use a simpler one. Often, we change the structure of the sentences that we dictate according to the scribe’s level.”

Arvind is planning to appear for the NET (National Eligibility Test) in English Literature this June and he says, “I am scared, ma’am. What happens if the scribe cannot pronounce the names of the authors referred to and stumbles over them? I will lose precious time.”

When Ramunni heard this, he told Arvind, “Hey that is not your only worry! I had an OMR answer sheet for the TET examination and my scribe started shading from question no 11. I lost 10 questions!”

By now, you must have concluded that Arvind, Venkat, Ramunni, and Ramraj are visually impaired. If they cannot use technology, as in computers, aided by a software called JAWS to help them write their answers, they have to depend on scribes. As doctoral students, they can afford to use technology and be self dependent, but as students in school and college, they were dependent on others to help them pass their examinations!

Their problems are not restricted to the writing of the papers alone. Very often, they are given scribes who are barely literate, who cannot even read properly, let alone write. In Venkat’s words: (said with a laugh, for, as they put it, if they cannot laugh at their own predicament they will give up studying) “In my class 10 mathematics examination I had a scribe who did not know the meaning of the symbol ∑ and could not tell me that it was sigma. He didn’t even know the greater than and lesser than symbols! They give us anyone available; often a class 4 attender. We suffer!”

Ramraj added to the multiplication of woes and said, “In my class 10 mathematics examination paper, I answered only for 56 marks, because the paper was too complicated for the scribe; that poor man could not read the paper, let alone take down my answers.”

These four young men, all pursuing research, had a lot more to say; I realized that I had only touched the tip of a huge ice berg.

But none of them was bitter about it. “We know we have to compromise; that life will never be easy for us. Every time we enter a new environment, we have to wonder, ‘what must we face?”

They do have their anxious moments though, of depression and worry when they ask themselves, “What the hell am I doing? Why do I want to study?” But they have not given up or lost hope.

I listened to all this and asked myself: what are we doing? Is simply providing a scribe enough? Do we not owe it to ourselves to ensure that the scribe can meet the demands of the student? We are talking about equal opportunities and right to education. But what about the children who are on the periphery because of an impairment? As these four aware, grown up educated students put it, “Ma’m, all this is only one per cent of the problem. We could tell you so much more. But think of the thousands of children who are not even aware of all this. They don’t even know that they can fight for a better scribe. School children who are visually impaired don’t know how to articulate the problem, let alone look for solutions. They think the problem is with them, not with the environment. All of us, on different occasions have gone and fought with the authorities and got a better scribe… but can every blind child do so? More importantly, should the child have to fight, or do we have to provide the facilities required?”

The litmus test of a good inclusive school would be one which provides help for the visually impaired in such a way that the student who cannot see can still write an answer paper in as good a manner as a sighted child. We need to remember that when answer papers are evaluated, there is no indication that the paper was written by a scribe or that the student is visually impaired. At that moment, the student’s performance is evaluated on par with everyone else. They often fare badly in examinations not because they are not intelligent, but because of poor scribing.

It may seem impossible, but actually, it is a very small step to take: if the school principal at every examination centre begins to check the proficiency of the scribe provided for each visually impaired student, the job will be done! Those of us in power, who work in examination centres, and in education departments, need to take this small but significant step to ensure that testing times are less tiresome for the visually impaired. Without that step, education can never be described as inclusive.

The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at gdurairajan@gmail.com.