What do marks tell about students?

Radhika Chaturvedi

After a lot of speculations around the assessment scheme for board students this year, the CBSE announced its results for class 12 on 30 July. As usual, some students received congratulatory messages from family and friends and some were unsatisfied with their marks. If we observe closely, this dissatisfaction or satisfaction with marks has no objective criterion. A student who scored 95 was as dissatisfied with her performance as her peer who scored 78. Reasons for dissatisfaction might vary– societal expectations, comparison with peer groups, dissatisfaction with the marking scheme and so forth. But a larger reason is the overarching meritocratic view on education. Many people have written about how merit plays an important role in deciding a student’s future. Enough has also been spoken about the loopholes of a merit based system and how it does not take into account the embedded advantages of economic, social and cultural capital[i]. A greater worry, other than this obsession with marks and percentages, is the final experience that a child takes away after investing a good 12 years of their lives into the schooling system. Rather than feeling happy and empowered, most students come out feeling incompetent, indecisive, lost and dissatisfied– all of it related to the final exam result. As educationists, we should ask ourselves whether the entire experience of a child’s life– from starting school to graduating as an adult—can be captured by something as abstract and intangible as marks and percentages. Is this the way the schooling journey should culminate?

I think not.

Year after year, we see the state machinery, including the Prime Minister and Education Ministers, coming together to address students on how they shouldn’t get bogged down by marks and examinations. Even our movies seem to echo the ‘excellence over success’ funda nowadays. However, the sad reality is that we continue to equate student success with the marks scored in the final board exams. Policy documents[ii] have merely been able to serve as jargon in the educational discourse and we find the final board exams continuing to hold the entire educational structure by its tail. COVID-19 allowed us to think outside the box and we witnessed a new scheme of assessment. Students were apprehensive and so were the teachers. But this new opportunity was overshadowed by the university systems’ demand to stick to their age-old percentage-based admission process.

Such resistance to change is indicative of our obsession with an unequal meritocratic system and a lack of imagination in designing a system focused on understanding.

This obsession is reinforced when family structures and educational set-ups come together to celebrate the achievements of some students over others. Celebrations in the form of messages over WhatsApp groups, news items in print and electronic media, hoardings of ‘toppers’ put up by schools, etc. While it is good to appreciate student effort, we should honestly ask ourselves– Are we really celebrating merit? Are marks and percentages true indicators of a student’s potential, perseverance and integrity? What about the ability to empathize, be sensitive towards fellow beings and the environment, and the values of honesty and self-reliance? Can they be measured in abstract numbers? If not, what are these numbers indicative of?

Numerous studies show how written examinations need to be completed in a stipulated time and this requires skill. Thus, the entire effort of the board classes is to focus on mastering this skill-set. This is done by holding examinations following a repetitive structure throughout the year, such that a child has practiced a certain set of questions over and over again, till they mug it up by heart. There is no new learning happening in this process. It is a regurgitation of the same concepts in the pattern as desired by the final board exam. We seldom ask children to enjoy this process of learning or to look out for creative solutions to the mysteries in science or mathematics or to read their favourite literature for pleasure or write something new, something unexplored. Even if there are teachers who care to make learning meaningful for students, the obsession with final exams distills the learning process into practical suggestions on how much to mug up to be able to attempt the paper, which chapter/subject is the most scoring, and what can be completely ignored as it will not fetch any marks.

And lest we forget, this is also the stage where children have matured into adolescents. They have forged great friendships, developed a sense of belongingness with the school and its people, become aware of their own identity as a person. There is also a sense of estrangement and anxiety about life outside school. It is a crucial period of emotional, mental and physical development.

As these children leave schools and move towards a path of greater learning, we should try and instill in them an explorative mindset, an openness to the beauty of knowledge and empower them to self-assess their strengths and weaknesses, irrespective of the board results. This way we will be helping children learn the art of contentment and fulfillment not simply arising out of external validation but organically emerging from learning about their own-selves.

We should not wait for them to grow up like us and then realize the futility of these marks in life’s development. Instead, we should take charge of developing in them a sense of joy towards learning when they are on the verge of adulthood. It is not a difficult goal. It is only a matter of re-discovering the right intentions towards achieving the aims of developing an autonomous, just and joyful human being.

The author is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of Teacher Training and Non-Formal Education, Jamia Millia Islamia and her work revolves around curriculum design and development. She can be reached at [email protected].


[i] See Madan, A. (2007). Sociologising Merit. Economic and Political Weekly. 42(29), 3044-3050.

[ii] Refer to the Report on the Secondary Education Commission (1952), National Education Policy (1986), Yashpal Committee Report- Learning without burden (1993), National Curriculum Framework 2000, 2005, National Education Policy 2020.

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