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Exam Reform: Why is it needed?

  • Because Indian school board exams are largely inappropriate for the ‘knowledge society’ of the 21st century and its need for innovative problem-solvers.
  • Because they do not serve the needs of social Justice.
  • Because the quality of question papers is low. They usually call for rote memorization and fail to test higher-order skills like reasoning and analysis, let alone lateral thinking, creativity, and judgment.
  • Because they are inflexible. Based on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ principle, they make no allowance for different types of learners and learning environments.
  • Because they induce an inordinate level of anxiety and stress. In addition to widespread trauma, mass media and psychological counselors report a growing number of exam-induced suicides and nervous breakdowns.
  • Because while a number of boards use good practices in pre-exam and exam management there remain several glaring shortfalls at several boards.
  • Because there is often a lack of full disclosure and transparency in grading and mark/grade reporting.
  • Because there is need for a functional and reliable system of school-based evaluation

Exit versus Entrance Exams

Board exams (especially at the twelfth grade) are often criticized for not adequately serving the selection needs of the next level of education; and the blame for the recent proliferation of entrance exams (and for the ‘coaching classes’ that claim to prepare one for them) is often laid at their door. This critique arises largely from confusion about the purpose of board exams. Board exams are, and must remain, ‘exit’ exams— whose goal is, and should be, to certify the successful completion of a course of study. Board exams are not, and should not be, designed as ‘entrance’ exams for professional courses, vocational streams, or whatever. Board exams, on the other hand, are designed to test a broad spectrum of learning considered to be essential by the framers of a common curriculum and to certify its completion. The two roles are essentially different.

What do board exam test?

Indian school board exams are rarely valid tests of desired competencies and broader curricular objectives, even within the cognitive domain. The core of the exam system is the exam paper. While actual exam administration and security and release of results have improved in recent years across most boards—mass cheating is down due to more flying squads, most boards release results within 45 days of the end of the exams, etc.— The question papers themselves remain seriously problematic in the following ways:

1. Repetition of identical (or very similar) questions from year to year (hence playing into the hands of coaching classes).

2. Ambiguous phrasing of questions or questions phrased as ‘Write a note on…’ (both of which require students to pour out all they remember from the textbook on that topic).

3. Inordinately lengthy (perhaps in an attempt, usually vain, to ‘cover’ all chapters of the textbook), hence allowing little time for actual thought, and discriminating against thoughtful reflection.

4. Designed to test a detailed knowledge of the textbook (including trivia and/or errors within it) rather than competencies and core concepts.

Common causes of this general malady are:

1. The examiner’s desire to test familiarity with the nooks and cranies of the textbook rather than to test for competencies and core concepts and

2. The paper-setter’s genuine confusion on what is central and what is peripheral, and what the role of the exam should be—to evaluate competencies and understanding of core content and concepts, not familiarity with obscure (and often incorrect) factual trivia.

False objectification, i.e., the chopping up of unified, integrated knowledge into discrete chunks, is another frequent problem, especially in the social sciences.


The cause of the above question setting/ paper setting malady is not difficult to diagnose. In recent years, exam boards have shifted their attention to preventing paper leakage. Substantive vetting of papers is rare as it poses a security risk. As it stands today, the system is primarily designed to be ‘accountable’ in case there is a leak, not to ensure quality. The prevention of cheating has also necessitated the creation of multiple sets of question-papers, placing a further burden on the process. In some states, like Punjab, five students sitting behind each other will all each solve a different question paper. In other states, many sets are generated but only one finally used, and the other sets held in reserve. But in either case, the plight of paper-setters is unenviable. In several states question papers are set by one individual, or a very small group of individuals, behind locked doors. These one or more individuals create multiple sets (usually three to five) on a single day (usually about four months before the exam) and get paid about Rs 250 per paper for the pains they take. Other than the textbook there is usually no support material provided, nor permitted to be brought in (ostensibly for security reasons). Nor is there scope for later modification. Given the conditions under which they are produced, it is no surprise that the questions are trite and require mechanical regurgitation, or problems are directly taken from textbooks. Paper-setting needs drastic reform. In fact, as has been successfully tried in Maharashtra (though for reasons of security rather than quality), the focus should shift to question setting from paper setting. Written by different paper setters at different times, questions should be categorized according to level of difficulty, topic area, competency being evaluated, and usage and testing record. A small expert group can then assemble individual questions into a paper. It should not be necessary that individual questions are written by experts. Indeed, democratization of this process is desirable. Good questions should be canvassed from teachers, college professors in that discipline, and educators from other states, ex-students, and even students. After a question has been selected and used in a paper, the question writer should be suitably compensated— this should provide incentives to write better and more innovative questions. A type of question that has great untapped potential is the multiple-choice question (MCQ). Well-designed multiple-choice questions with plausible distracters have the following advantages over ‘short answers’:

1. They can be machine-marked and, hence, are entirely ‘reliable’.

2. Very quick results are possible.

3. Copying problem can largely be eliminated by shuffling of question numbers.

4. Extensive syllabus coverage is possible due to the brief time needed per question.

5. Lower student anxiety levels, higher pass percentages, and lower urban–rural score disparities are reported by DSERT in Karnataka, where MCQs have been tried extensively in recent years for 60% of many subject exams.

It should be stressed that designing a good MCQ paper is an art and cannot be left to untrained examiners. They will require training by specialist trainers. Also, MCQ is not a panacea for the exam system. While MCQ can more deeply probe the level of conceptual understanding of students and gauge a student’s mastery of subtleties, it cannot be the only kind of question in any exam. MCQs work best in conjunction with some open-ended essay questions in the second part of the paper, which tests expression, and the ability to formulate an argument using relevant facts. If, as we recommend, exams in most subjects adopt a combination of MCQs and open-ended essay questions (which could be ‘tiered’ to help students structure their response), the ubiquitous ‘short answer’ or ‘objective-type’ question (the staple of exams today) can be eliminated altogether.

The Need for Flexibility

Exam systems need to be more flexible. Just as we must ensure that education and assessment systems are fair to all social groups, we should ensure that they do not discriminate against particular kinds of learners. There is a lot of psychological data to suggest that different learners learn differently, and, hence, to test all learners through a written test of the same type in subject after subject is unfair to those whose verbal proficiency is superior to their writing skills, those who work more slowly but with deeper insight, or those who work better in groups than individually.

Examination reform propose the following solutions-

  1. There should be more varied modes of assessment, including oral testing and group work evaluation.
  2. Do not expect everything of everybody in every subject; just as we allow students and schools some element of choice in the choosing of their subjects, they should have the choice of picking one of two levels within that subject. Of, say, six subjects, every student would choose to do 3 (or 4) exams at the higher level and 3 (or 2) exams at the standard level. Though set on the same curriculum, higher-level exams would have a larger component of high-order-skill testing and demand greater speed, conceptual understanding, and depth of insight than the standard-level exams.
  3. Flexibility in when exams are taken; If it is accepted that learners learn at different paces We recommend that students be allowed to clear some (up to two, perhaps) subjects at the end of the XI (or the IX grade for the secondary exam). This would not only reduce stress a year later but also make for better long-term learning—and cause very little inconvenience to exam boards.
  4. Enhanced reporting of performance (or comparing apples with apples).

Reduction of Exam Stress & Anxiety

Examination are artificial situations created for the convenience of the system & not the individual learner By given the time-bound & ‘one short’ nature it is not surprising that exam in their current form will induce anxiety

We recommend the following measures for reducing exams anxiety:-

  1. A lot of stress is related to the excessive length of the question papers shorter exams leave time for deliberation & periodic rent. The exam length (usually 3 hour per subject ) should be reduced (2.5 hours for higher level exam and 2 hr for standard level ), remember that the paper setter’s quest to cover all section of the syllabus and the expected answer in the given time should be reduced and 95% student will be able be completed. Pilot project should be initiated.
  2. Questions that required to draw on 2 or more areas of the syllabus would also allow more comprehensive testing within lesser time, education all about making lateral linkages or crating “ecology of knowledge in the brain”.
  3. A shift in emphasis from ‘short answer’ to MCQs designed to test real understanding of core concepts.
  4. Student should be able to take the exam in their home school in order to reduce stress caused by unfamiliar environments.
  5. A long term move towards open book exams can be envisage and is one of the pilot programs mention at the end of the report. Candidates doing chemistry paper give the periodic table & bond angle value examinees in math & physics should given trigonometric identities & formula otherwise have to be learnt by rote. The focuses of question should likewise, move to genuine application from mere plug- in type problem in history question which tell whether student know where each of the Indian nation congresses mate (pure rote) be replaced question such as mention 8 causes of the event of 1857 this would not only be more humane and less stress- inducing, it would also call upon students to organize their thoughts into an arguments and demonstrate higher-order interpretive skills.
  6. Elimination of the term fail not appear on mark sheets can be replace by phrases such as unsatisfactory or better needs, more work to attain desired standards.
  7. There will always some individual who cannot demonstrate such satisfactory completion. So they provide number of chances to retake one or more exams there should elimination of the pass/fail concept by permitting repeated retake.
  8. The focus group is not convinced that boards today work (singly or collectively) toward ensuring that the pass mark represents a meaningful and carefully calibrated cut-off designed to certify satisfactory completion of a course. Papers in all subjects and all boards should be designed so that the pass mark is not just an arbitrary cut-off but actually measures the attainment of desired competencies.

Following the principle that exams are an evil, if a necessary one, there should be no exams than are strictly and absolutely necessary. The tenth grade exam should be made optional forthwith. They continuing in the eleventh grade at the same school, and do not need board certificate and free to take a school conducted exam instead of board exam.

Exam Management

In the non-academic side of exam management, there has been a significant improvement in recent years. Aided by computer technology, the whole process from registration to generation of exam tickets and generation of mark sheets has become seam less and largely error-free in many states. Most states also now release results within 45 days from the last exam.

Some ‘best practices’ recommended for adoption by all states.

  • Pre-exam
    • Choice of exam centers; during exams, students should not be expected to travel much more than their daily trip to their school. When a school is large enough and has the requisite infrastructure to be a centre, students should be able to appear for their exams there itself in a familiar environment. This will have the benefit of reducing stress on candidates.
    • Exams should never be postponed, as it causes considerable hardship and unnecessary anxiety to candidates and undermines their faith in the system.
    • By protecting the identity of candidates and examiners from each other, a lot of post exam malpractice can be checked.
    • Paper setting the question/paper setters must produce the initial mark scheme for that paper in addition to the paper.

  • Conduct of Examinations
    • Candidates should not be disturbed in the course of their exam and if disturbance must be caused (e.g., for mass checking of entry tickets to detect impersonation), compensatory time should be given to candidates.
    • Electronic surveillance by hidden electronic eyes and the use of technology such as magnetic strips on doors.
    • Seals on the question paper packet should be opened and signed, just prior to the exam-start, by three individuals: chief invigilator, police/security chief of the centre, and a student candidate. Likewise, answer paper packets should be sealed and similarly countersigned before their departure from the exam hall.
    • Toilets are often used by candidates as repositories of crib sheets and must be monitored throughout the exam as closely as the exam hall itself.
    • Responses to the paper just concluded should be invited from teachers for a period of 24 hours.
    • One area of immediate concern is the widely varying concessions and facilities available to students with physical or learning disabilities. Some boards have not taken up this issue in earnest and need to be acquainted with more progressive measures taken by other boards.


Grater transparency is an unstoppable force. It is the product of growing demand from every body with an interest in any education system .Greater transparency generally y leads to greater accountability and better exam board behaviour. It is the product of growing demands from every body with an interest in any education system. Rapid technological changes, above all the spread of the internet, makes it easier for board to supply information and harder for them to keep secrets with grater transparency.

 As a lot is at stake in exams, it is only natural that many candidates would want to be doubly sure that they have not been victims of systemic error. Exam boards should not only be transparent but also be seen to be transparent with respect to answer paper, re-grading, re-checking etc.

 Detailed mark schemes should also be made public, and posted on official websites for scrutiny, as soon as reasonably possible in the interest of transparency. Where several question papers have been used simultaneously (to prevent malpractice), they need to be standardized for the level of difficulty, and scaling done if one is appreciably more difficult than another.

 Enough time (at least two weeks) should be provided between the delivery of scanned/photocopied answer papers and the end of the period for appealing a grade. All re-marking should be done by experienced examiners. If the final marks change by more than if 5% there has clearly been slip- up on the part of board and as a gesture of good will, the rechecking charges should be refunded to the candidates.

 To prevent frivolous grade appeals board should reserve the right to rise as well as lower marks/grades if the deviation upon re-marking is found to be greater than 5%.

 The above point presupposes that examiners are volunteers eager to do a good job. This can only happen if they are paid a fair wage for their important work. The practice of forcing teachers to examine is highly unlikely to lead to good examining and should be abandoned forthwith. We laud the efforts of these and other states to make their systems transparent. One can also be fairly sure that the more casual examiners in these states now do their job more diligently.

 As we recommend, state boards introduce more open-ended and free-response questions and eschew false objectification. Some states already do this.

 It is recommended that examiners generally grade papers at regional centers set up for the purpose and not at home.

 Honesty in mark sheets: grades do have one clear advantage over marks. They are more honest. Grades also have some other minor advantages over marks. They may also play some role in reducing stress and anxiety . It will be needed to convince end-users, especially universities, of the value and necessity of grades. Standardization of a nine-point grading scale, for both 10th and 12th grade exams is also needed in order to offer inter-board comparability of results. Till such time as this consensus is reached, we recommend that marks be reported alongside grades to avoid sowing confusion.

 Transparency and fairness in mark sheets: A reform which we believe to be of at least equal importance (as the issue of replacing marks by grades) is a fuller disclosure of how the student fares relative to his or her peers. To present a wider range of performance parameters on the marks sheet. Absolute marks/grade percentile rank among all candidates of that subject and percentile rank and among peers. Too long in India, we have reduced merit to a single mark per subject and a single overall percentage. Merit is rather more complicated concept. Can we honestly assert that two students who both attain 75% in their board exams but with one having attended a school in South Mumbai and another school in rural Mulshi are equally meritorious?

 School boards cannot force university admission committees, or the job market, to consider these factors. But printing this data on the mark sheet constitutes a start toward a fairer definition of merit.

School-based Assessment

This Focus Group was to suggest reforms for exams.

1. Continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE):

School-based continuous and comprehensive evaluation system be established in order to;

(i) Reduce stress on children. (ii) Make evaluation comprehensive and regular. (iii) Provide space for the teacher for creative teaching. (iv) Provide a tool for diagnosis and for producing learners with greater skills. The CCE scheme should be simple, flexible, and implementable in any type of school from rural or tribal areas.

2. Issue of CCE certificate:

To make CCE effective, some weight to school-based Assessment (SBA) should be given by State Education Boards. The certificate in terms of grades should be issued along with the board certificate by the board. The two types of assessments, i.e., internal and external, should, be shown separately in the certificate, 20% weight age may be given to CCE for class X.

3. Keeping internal assessment honest:

Designated samples of internally assessed work must be sent to the board in each subject. In cases where the board is satisfied with the quality, they should get its mark of approval. Otherwise, the remark accompanying the CCE mark on the mark sheet will read: ‘Declared by school with no board authentication.’

4. Practical Examinations:

The shabby assessment of science practical’s by schools, in most boards, with a majority of candidates getting full or near-full marks (often without even the experiment having taken place) is a good illustration of what happens when boards abdicate their responsibility to monitor and moderate samples of school-based evaluation. The checks suggested in the preceding paragraph need to be implemented without delay. If they cannot, the farce of school-assessed practicals must end and the science marks be given entirely on the basis of theory exams .It would be unfortunate if it has to come to this as good experimentation and experimental skills are at the heart of the scientific enterprise. Unless laboratory assessment is made less farcical, the quality of the country’s scientific manpower is under serious threat; the number of students interested in scientific pursuits is already stagnating in several states.


It should be clear from the above that board examinations in India need serious re-examining, at the same time, it should be recognized that exam reform has the potential to lead educational reform.

Reforming exams alone will attain very little unless it is accompanied by other basic reforms: improvement of teacher training, teacher quality and teacher-student ratio. In addition, making textbooks and the curriculum more relevant and interesting and challenging; and spending more on education (at all levels but now especially for the secondary level) will be vital. At the same time, it should be recognized that exam reform has the potential to lead educational reform. It has often been lamented that in Indian education the tail (assessment) has usually wagged the dog (of learning and teaching). The charge is a fair one and de-emphasizing exams will certainly liberate the learning and teaching process from its straitjacket. But this pivotal position of exams in the educational system can be used to leverage advantage—to hasten reform within Indian education as a whole.

Examination Reform Efforts in India

  1. Curriculum for 10 year school- A Framework -1975
  2. Curriculum for Elementary and Secondary Education - 1988
  3. NCF-2000