Board exams 2021 cancelled — Are we better off with or without them?

Praveen Kumar S

Recently, the CBSE announced that the 10th std board exams for the academic year 2020–2021 have been cancelled. The statement of the CBSE added –
The results of Class X Board will be prepared on the basis of an objective criterion to be developed by the Board. Any candidate who is not satisfied with the marks allocated to him/her on this basis will be given an opportunity to sit in an exam as and when the conditions are conducive to hold the exams.
This resulted in a flurry of mixed responses from schools, teachers, and parents. Pressure is now mounting on the state boards to cancel their exams.
For the students, the cancellation of exams didn’t bring much relief. The vague statement about the declaration of results raised doubts about admissions to “good” pre-university colleges (senior secondary schools), preparation for entrance examinations, and thereby admissions to top professional colleges a few years later. So much that these students have to worry about (or forced to worry about?)! Uncertainty is tougher to handle than the ordeal of preparing for the exams and handling the pressure of expectations.
All these views around the cancellation of the board exams forced me to think about the value that these exams add. A couple of incidents that happened a while ago got me thinking even more about this subject.

2017–2018, Mumbai
I was a jury member for a national talent search conducted as a joint effort of two government bodies and one non-government agency. Teamwork and leadership skills were among the several criteria that students were evaluated on. Throughout the event, it was striking to see that the younger students (6th — 8th grade) did exceptionally well in the team-based assessments as compared to the older ones (9th — 11th grade).
During the team presentations and the problem-solving sessions among the juniors, a few of the team members contributed their bit to the project they were given and then willingly took a backseat allowing their teammates to make the final presentation without any interruption, but stepped in whenever they were needed. In contrast, every student among the seniors wanted to showcase their part within the team project and the presentations would often be disconnected and incoherent with the teammates themselves interjecting (mostly unnecessarily).

2020, Online classroom (Lockdown)
A good thing about the first lockdown was the amount of time it gave us to catch up on reading and also teach online. I had started two courses Mathematics & Science for Fun — one for students in high school and the other for students who had just completed high school (entering 11th std). These classes were planned to be exploratory in nature allowing students to ask questions and many-a-times digress quite a bit (something which wouldn’t be possible in a regular class).
In the course for the students that finished high school, my sessions would get over before the scheduled closure. There were limited questions raised by the attendees and repeated requests for similar “problems” for practice. However, in the course for the high school students, the sessions rarely ended on time — the questions just wouldn’t stop. Almost all the sessions would end with me saying — I am not sure. Let me figure it out and we will discuss it in the next session. The participants were willing to spend a day or two just trying to crack one mathematical challenge I would throw at them. They enjoyed and preferred variety over the practice of the same type of problems.
Learning about combinatorics for the first time, the younger ones were even able to crack problems from JEE and Olympiads (though I didn’t mention the source). When the NEP 2020 was announced, they had so many questions about it that we had to plan for a separate session for the same.

What is changing the students’ behaviour and their appetite for learning once they enter high school? Is it the schools’ and parents’ focus on board exams that drives these students to be self-centered, practice more, worry about past year question papers and blueprints? Do board exams and the preparation required, encourage students to be comfortable with the unknown and become problem-solvers? Are the board exam scores indicative of the students’ learning? What purpose does a 10th standard certificate (in the present form) serve beyond being a document for identity and proof of age?
When will our system evolve to nurture and assess the students for their “co-scholastic” skills and values or the 21st century skills? Isn’t it ironic that despite the fancy school buildings and international schools nurturing “global citizens of the 21st century”, we don’t even have a systematic way of articulating a student’s learning?

I am sure that we won’t be getting satisfactory answers to any of the above questions. Why then worry about the cancellation of board exams? There is a long way to go for these exams to transform from “assessments of learning” to “assessments for learning” as envisioned in the NEP. A knee-jerk response of dumping these summative assessments altogether also won’t serve the purpose.

I only wish that we use this opportunity to review existing practices, experiment with contextually appropriate assessments and learn from each others’ experiences. This, of course, isn’t easy, but…

As a Chinese proverb goes – To get through the hardest journey we need to take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.

I hope that we put our hearts, heads and hands together to take that first step.

The author is the Chief Strategy Officer and Head-Education, Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement. He can be reached at

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