The Folly of Exam Scores

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Created by Polish artist – Pawel Kuczynski

“I started studying from the beginning of the year; I revised daily, attended extra classes and even went to coaching institutes in order to excel in my examinations. I am very happy with the outcome, all my hard work paid off,” – says the UAE topper in the CBSE board exams to a newspaper.

The results of the 12th Board examinations (CBSE) were announced on 29th May, 2014 and to the amusement of many, these were some of the best scores in the recent years. The student quoted above scored a staggering 98.2%. The toil of the thousands of students had finally come down to a number, that, though expresses in absolute the achievement of the individual,  will always be inevitably held relative to the performance of his or her immediate peers and the school at large. The final reports on the performance of students reek of statistics and numbers too – the percentage of students who passed, those who scored above 90%, classification of achievers between boys and girls and so on.

One cannot discount the hard work put into the preparations – of students, teachers, and even of friends who constantly aid each other with notes and many a times with the much needed moral support. The joy of receiving good scores is, at least in that moment, unparalleled. While the news of good grades is certainly a reason to celebrate, one cannot ignore that the academic landscape, especially that of CBSE and India at large, is archaic and static with students spending consecutive years in bettering just one thing – scores.

I am a product of the same academic structure and I have spent my life as a student on the crossroads of two contrasting views – one, that competitive scores are an integral means to better opportunities for higher studies and employment, and the other that  marks are merely rudimentary indicators that are inferior to  psychological strength and street-smartness. Unsure if it is for the better or is an addition to my dilemma, I have not managed to lift myself from this middle ground.

I recognise that marks are not the sole pedestal to leverage ones strengths, and that gathering experience, reading, interacting with influential people and other activities can often lead to development of the self in cases where great academic scores may fall short. At the same time, I am in complete disagreement with the popular free-wheeling  notion of absolute futility of decent marks. Trying and achieving good grades is the most basic disposition of heavy financial investment in one’s education. More over, achieving good grades need not be taken at face value. It reflects several attitudes and aspects of the achiever – the dedication, drive to excel, ability to grasp concepts and convince examiners. My point is not to shun the concept of marks, but to go beyond it.

What is being completely ignored in this mix of academics is the importance of encouraging students to think beyond their text books and seek inspiration from the surroundings and nature. I don’t remember a single moment in the classroom when our teachers asked us or made us read the educational plight of unfortunate children around the globe. We were never recommended reading material that depicted the effects of war and reveal the specific ramifications of turmoil while we sat largely insulated from and  insensitive to human sufferings. What does money really mean? What happens if banks themselves go bankrupt? How did the financial crisis of 2008 alter family relations? In addition, never was our mind conditioned to delve into the lives of the non-teaching staff – the janitors, the bus conductors or the ones who served us palm sized pizzas in the canteen. Our paths cross often, but we never stopped for even a brief greeting. Where did they live? What made them happy? Do they have children at home who they wish studied with us? What was the proudest moment in their life? Do they feel their youth returning to them from a bygone era when they deliver their lecture, or do they feel bogged down by the weight of the course structure? Why did they choose the subject they teach? Do teachers have any regrets?

Not wandering into these philosophical tendencies of the mind has created brains that erupt into erratic activity in moments before the exam, to absorb something that they may never care to remember again. What they study reflects in their answer sheets, but not in their personalities. Not inquiring into these prominent aspects of society, we miss out on opportunities to emancipate ourselves from a sedentary lifestyle that is too comfortable to be permanent. We lose the chance of expanding our imagination and making various elements of society a part of our natural thought pattern. Here, not just creativity is killed, but the natural affinity for inquisitiveness and inquiry is stifled under the iron fist of academic lessons.

While the academic structure remains more or less the same, our surroundings are changing rapidly. What mattered to people yesterday has been compromised for what they can afford today and we students today are compelled to study from literature that would make little difference tomorrow. Instead of probing into the difficult questions, we are preparing ourselves to directly answer in examinations. In the heroic quote of the UAE topper that I mentioned in the beginning, I sense an ominous blanket of fullness and nothingness at the same time. Fullness of the positive attitude towards setting everything forthright for a successful academic venture, and the nothingness in the failure to express what a young student can achieve without being confined to closed doors of incessant academic training. I sense the nothingness in disregarding the role of art and nature in achieving a successful and happy outcome, the nothingness from not pushing oneself to understand the environment and the society deeper, and the nothingness in knowing that this quote will be stuck on refrigerators of middle class Indian parents as a reference for their children.

The folly of marks is not just in what one ignores, but also what cannot be changed. Marks still remain one of the most important aspects for relief in academic fees and competitive scholarships, and it still remains the reason for pride and happiness in an average Indian household. And disappointingly, it will still be a reason for me to occasionally fret over losing a few extra digits.

We’ve already spent a significant amount of our time studying static texts off books mandated by the course. It is  now time to pick a leaf from the books of people who can fascinate us with stories, only if we went beyond the chapter titled ‘scores’.


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