Why Test-Tech will never be welcome in our Class 10/12 Exam System: India's Education Mafia [Exam Officials]

posted Jan 6, 2019, 6:14 AM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jan 18, 2019, 6:16 AM ]
**Warning: this is a long read, 4000+ words**

ION Digital Zone is one of the best things ever, to happen to the Indian testing and assessment scene. These are large, wired computer rooms for computer based testing: currently handling entrance examinations. While there are certain academic limitations of computer-gradable question formats, given the ease which there can be a standardized evaluation at a very large scale, it does make sense to ensure that a section of the testing happens in this format as this is extremely noise-free. It is hard to find well qualified and trained script-markers. Where the services of ION Digital are really required is our class 10 and 12 exams. Even if it means just a simple SAT like paper focusing on basic reading and math and reasoning skills. This can serve as a coarse filter and help identify the extreme cases who simply shouldn't pass the class 10 or 12 examinations. But this is where it will not happen anytime soon.

Apparently, from the coming year, India's ancient pen-and-paper board exam format is going to switch to one where encrypted question papers with water-marks for each center are going to be electronically dispatched and then printed out. One wonders how this experiment is going to work out with millions of students involved. We will eventually get to the disastrous consequences of the breakdown of India's outdated exam system and its direct results: average schools charging nearly a lakh, overpriced books and an unemployable youth population which considers it fine to cheat and copy. For now, let me talk about a somewhat comical episode where I tried my best to put the entire country through a mathematics re-examination over a paper leak; in a fit of rage partly with myself, at leaving an answer just short of the finish line and losing my shot at scoring a tropy 100/100 in an examination which was, for all practices, inconsequential to me. 

It was 2001, and I had just turned 17, the last lap of Class 12 was in progress: the relatively inconsequential Class 12 exam and the IIT JEE in May. I had worked hard till that point, but the syllabus for both examinations combined, is a lot. Things had started to spin out of control and I figured that it’d be easiest to take it easy with the board exam: a 75% or a 95% wasn’t going to make a big difference in my scheme of things. I was just prioritizing out of compulsion rather than choice: the investment going into the JEE was huge, in terms of both time and money; I was willing to make do with a dismal Class 12 score but I didn’t want to be sitting around at home preparing for entrance exams for yet another year. There were, however, two papers which I figured I could ace: Mathematics and English. It was my school leaving record after all, and something had to look good on the final marksheet. For some weird reason I cared deeply about “maxing” the Math paper. 100/100 or maybe 99/100. From what I remember, no one ever scored 100/100 back in the day. 

Anyway, we fast forward to March, and the exam begins. The first paper was either English Language or Literature. I clearly remember a register with some sort of model paper and also an essay in the hands of a student of another section, while waiting in front of our school auditorium (the exam hall). It was either an essay, or perhaps an essay-like answer describing a specific incident from our literature syllabus. I remember chuckling and making a snide remark to myself, wondering what someone aimed to accomplish by memorizing an essay right before the exam. Till I entered the exam hall and saw the paper about 10 minutes later. And. 

Jawdrop. That same essay topic (or essay-style question) was right there. 

From what I remember, each of these used to account as much as a quarter (or perhaps a fifth) of the total marks (100); so knowing such a topic beforehand was bound to be a big thing. And then it dawned, that the model paper was most likely, not a model paper at all. In all likelihood, it was a copy of the actual exam paper. Well, anyway, I did that paper just fine and I did not mention this model paper episode to anyone because the extent of any paper leak could exacerbate if people became curious and I most certainly did not want a re-examination at that point as it could potentially ruin the last month of preparation before the entrance exam, the IIT JEE. The more widespread the leak, the greater the chance of someone finding out and deciding to cancel exams, if not for the entire country, at least for our school. 

After that we had the remaining English paper and then, one of the Science theory papers - perhaps Chemistry. I did quite badly in it, but I was not too perturbed. I think this was the day that a few more students had managed to access the paper before the exam happened and right after the exam, someone showed the students a copy of that day’s question paper, of which he already was in posession since the night before. The cat was finally out of the bag. I knew about this entire episode and was myself offered the remaining three papers for a surprisingly low price - maybe 2000 Rs - but I had very little interest in seeing the papers. I was uncomfortable with the idea of accessing such papers for a variety of reasons: a mix of honesty, fear, laziness (running around in the middle of the night) and an active conscience at work. In fact I don’t think I gave the whole thing a second thought at all, but I was genuinely worried about the headache of a re-examination. Well, till that point. 

Now came the Mathematics paper. Half the class, if not more, had the paper in advance and I could sense the joy on people’s faces as they received the question paper in the exam hall. I quickly scanned the questions and I sensed that I’d manage an easy 100; so it didn’t really didn’t matter to me that many others had seen the questions and I had not. I remember being extra cautious; checkind and double-checking every small step and answer. I had to get that 100, you see.
This was really the only paper where I cared deeply about what I scored though it was really a quest for purely ornamental purposes. I don’t remember anything about the questions in the paper, but to this day, I have vivid memories of the last fifteen minutes and the last question I was attempting. It was related to the statistics section; finding a correlation coefficient. Now these are trivial questions of a formulaic nature. But they involve columns to be made, lots of numbers moved around from here to there and even with a calculator (still remember the Casio Fx-82) it takes a while to work out ranks and key in several numbers. I managed to draw all the columns, write all the formulas, fill up a good section of the table. But as luck would have it, I ran out of time and never really got a chance to complete the last few cells in the table and so I never computed the final coefficient. 

Ouch! I wasn’t going to get my 100. I knew that I wasn’t going to lose more than a mark or two, but so what. It wasn’t a 100. From the several hundreds of exams I must have written in my school years, this is the one and only question and answer which I clearly remember. Time was up and the answer script was literally snatched out of my hands. My state of mind was similar to that of a kid hollering for an ice-cream cone which broke and fell off halfway. 

There was something enigmatic about my [failed] and obsessive quest for 100s in Mathematics all throughout school specially when I was quite comfortable with practically any score in any other subject. I used to often end up just a few marks short of this 100, making that one slip. And then finally, in the Class 10 board exam I got everything right, but even there it showed up as a 98. Things are fairly simple till Class 10 anyway, and with some care, there was nothing that remarkable about such a score. Maybe they deduct a mark or two as they get strict about things like presentation and neatness as you approach the perfect score. It was only in my very first term in Class 11 that this 100 stopped behaving like the an ever elusive chimera, and I actually scored a 100 and at that time it was actually considered an achievement of sorts as there used to be a sudden jump in standards between Class 10 and 11, with calculus playing spoilsport for many.
And so, the very thought of losing even two marks in this last Mathematics exam was infuriating. In contrast, I had zero concerns about genuinely turning in a complete blank for about a fifth of the Chemistry paper which had been held before this one. I slammed the desk shut when I left the exam hall that day. I wanted that 100 by hook or by crook and in that state of mind I zoomed in on the most inane and risky way to go around it, if not downright dangerous: I figured that the leak needed to be announced and I wanted a Math re-exam to happen. The first thing I did when I returned home, was to shoot an anonymous email to the ICSE board. A few hours of cooling down, and it started to dawn on me, that it was a terribly impolitic thing to do; but this genie was out of the bottle. I even tried to Google for ways to retract a dispatched email but that was obviously in vain. 

A few references to that leak still exist on Facebook! Inserting to give readers some confidence in my story. 

The next day, or perhaps two days later, the board management made some sort of a panic visit to the school. I was now trying to work out the risk-return factor for myself. What was the ideal situation for me? Put hundreds of schools across the country through a re-exam specifically for Math (hide the rest of the Pandora’s box), get another shot at that 100: or shut up and steer clear because (a) a very real risk that the entire exam could be re-conducted; this had happened in the past and/or (b) what if I ended up losing more marks in the re-exam :) At least Math did not need any specific last-minute memorization or preparation, so I figured that I wouldn’t mind it, if several hundreds of schools all over the country had to re-take that one paper, so that I could get another shot at a 100. 

This is where it gets interesting. When I came to school to see what sort of “investigation” was in progress, students had accepted that questions had leaked out, but it also became quite obvious, that the people running the board were more interested in disproving that any such thing happened and were repeatedly making a spurious insistence for “evidence”. It was quite clear that they were more interested in suppressing any news than in addressing the issue.
I was still in a dilemma about which way I wanted the ball to roll, and it struck me that some semblance of “evidence” was likely to be lying in a dustbin: I rummaged inside the dustbin and Voila! I quickly found one page of the leaked questions which had been floating around. And it was quite visible that it was not from the question paper itself. I was now in a self-congratulatory mode and so very proud of my find that I proudly walked up to the head of the board and put this page right into his hand. Next to him, there was this lady who was the head of the Class 12 exams. Three days later I regretted the whole thing because I figured that the headaches for me were bound to be far greater than any benefits, specially while chasing a score with no concrete benefits to myself. I was hoping that the dust would settle, aka, the episode forgotten in true Indian style, and that is exactly what happened. 

Of course, after the exam is held, a copy of the “leaked” paper is hardly direct evidence. But, when cases of copying or cheating or any other malfeasance are prevalant at a center, it immediately shows up in data. If one observes a huge jump in the number of perfect-scores from a center, or a stunning increase in the mean score (relative to their class 10 performance) it is a red flag indicating compromised systems. 

There’s generally a fair bit of a gap between Class 12 papers and there were still two papers left after this Math paper. The curious thing is that both those exampapers were leaked as well. No effort had been made in replacing question papers with new sets. On the last day, in fact, a newspaper in Dehradun published Hindi questions right before the exam. Though I did not have Hindi, at this point I was really terrified of the ordeal of going through any re-examination. The results were declared in time and the school advertised its “brilliant results” by distributing copies of the entire result sheet for the Class 12 batch, to everyone it could. 

Mr Francis Fanthome was one of the officers who had come for inspection was the head of the board at that time, who (as it turns out) was later thrown out for running a racket of taking cuts from publishers and permitting them to use his name as a co-author in all sorts of books ranging from English to Computers. Using an official’s name in books obviously gives them greater acceptance in the marketplace. His most damaging contribution was to Indian computing education in particular, where he teamed up with software vendors and push MS Office in the name of “computer education” in tens of thousands of schools all over the country. The government appointed a committe to probe his disproportionate assets; may he rest in peace in the comfort of his ill-gotten wealth. He was also an alleged sexual predator. 

The other office bearer - another crook - with him was not any nondescript education officer, but the wife of former Principal of St. Stephen’s college - Mrs. Rita Wilson. Both husband and wife were present on the board and in what was obviously a brazen conflict of interest case; Anil Wilson’s books were presecribed as mandatory books across all their schools (must’ve surely made kickbacks from this process). And don’t even get me started about the serious conflict of interest when the head of one of the most prized colleges in India simultaneously holds an appointment in an exam board the marks from which are the primary instrument in entering the college headed by him. Ideally, this lady should have been jailed for suppressing something as critical as a paper leak at the Class 12 level. Remember, just 500 students having access to leaked papers is sufficient to leave almost none of the coveted seats in prized colleges like St. Stephen’s and SRCC. If the data for 2001 entry (maybe other years as well?) is closely scrutinized for these colleges, I strongly suspect the malfeasable will be evident in the form of an unnaturally high percentage of students from ICSE schools in the Western-UP/Uttarakhand belt. Don't even get me started on what a serious crime it is to suppress information about paper leaks. 

Also, throughout all of Mrs Rita Wilson's tenure, ISC marksheets had the "missing marks" phenonomenon where many scores were simply not attained in any subject, by any student all over the country, for several decades. Perhaps a computer glitch or a bug. The issue was only fixed as recently as 2017 without the board offering any insight into what had gone wrong and what was fixed. Such is the character (or characterlessness) of officials in India's exam boards.
What is even worse is that these low integrity officials get invited as Chief Guests to schools and get projected as role models to impressionable kids! They also get invited to all sorts of conferences organized by gullible panels who are unaware of the "true service" of these people. The issue is explained in detail here, the gist of it is: for several years (going backwards from 2016 to at least 1997) none of the million (or more) students who took the ISC/ICSE examinations scored various marks like 91, 93, 89, 87, 85, 84, 82, 81, 80 etc. in any subject. There was obviously a computer bug which was affecting the result but it also revealed that the board was editing marks without offering any insights into how it was done. This would be criminal anywhere. Not only that, school managements were keeping their own representatives as the "head invigilator" for their own students taking board exams: they had a license to allow their own students to cheat. 

500 students with a copy of the leaked papers is all that it takes for a major chunk of Delhi University's seats to be grabbed, even now. 

YouTube Video

Anil Wilson (late), head of St. Stephen’s college in Delhi was te editor of several ICSE text-books like this, this and this . Why on earth does the board need to prescribe a version of Julius Ceaser edited by a specific person? It’s not so hard to comprehend: his wife, Rita Wilson, held a rather senior post in the board at that time. Similarly, why did the board need a compilation of standard poems, edited by a specific author and sold by a particular publisher? The vicious cycle of cuts and commissions is not to difficult to spot. Rita Wilson’s successor, Gerry Arathoon, has also succumbed to this enterprising temptation and after a brief expulsion for this bad behavior he is back in business. Such is the degree of characterlessness of this white-collar mafia which runs India’s exam boards. 

To be very clear, I don't have serious issues with board members prescribing their own books: these are private schools and a private board and no one's forced students to join these schools. 
The point where it gets not just murky but also unacceptable, is when malfeasance creeps into the public examinations they conduct. 


I think there’s a gradual realization that a general acceptance of varying shades of cheating, bribery and dishonesty in India has gone well beyond the point of being a mere fairness and honesty issue, to one which is now a very real economic threat. Probably because of the relatively relatively insular nature and sterilized surroundings which characterizes IT corridors (despite the general urban mess which much of India reels in), I haven’t personally experienced day-to-day corruption but my one main experience with relatively high profile scamsters needs to be documented. You will have to excuse the incendiary language used against the protagonists in this episode: it is entirely justified for what was egregiously criminal behavior by people in public office, in-charge of administering a very crucial school leaving examinations. 

One of them is now no more (RIP) but the evil of certain men - and women - lives after them, so we should not hesitate in discussing it. The episode above itself is actually a bit funny, unless you happen to be the person I have tagged, but on the whole, it is part of the greater tragedy of dishonesty and cheating which eclipses India. Also, this story fits as a piece of a jigsaw with exteremely serious implications for the country, right from our unemployable millions to the insane fees being charged for very ordinary schooling; I will explain the dynamics of it right at the end. I want to pen down these things before I forget it all. This post might also help answer some perpetual puzzles about why our school and exam systems are stuck in the horsecart era and remain so archaic and technology-free: tech will decimate the cuts and commissions and kickbacks which can be made by corrupt characters currently involved in our affiliation and exam processes. 

People have started referring to the "private school mafia", "publisher mafia" and it is indeed true that so many schools with fancy buildings, have negiligible teaching or learning going on, and they still manage to charge over 50k, 1L for a year! There has been a lot of cartelization but "mafia" is an inappropriate term to use for a sector which the population has decided to choose on their own: after all, they could always go to the closest government run school and they don't. 
The real reason why very shady schools exist, charging extremely high fees, is because they can: the exam-board system has broken down completely, and teachers need to do very little to make sure that results are "good".  Results and pass-rates are simply not indicating any sort of effective learning. So there is no real signal about learning - or the lack of it - for parents, and for that matter, even school-managements. If we have honest assessments or examinations in place, a large fraction of students will end up failing, and only a very small fraction of true achievers (<5%) will score high marks (90%). But this is not happening. So it is indeed possible for schools to do practically nothing other than collect the fees, and still end up with fairly okay results, by doing the bare minimal, that too only in grade 10 and 12. So we are stuck in a visious cycle of cheating, copying, misreporting and inflation of marks, paper leakage and substandard pedagogy. 
Simply clean up the exam boards and their assessments, and a large chunk of substandard schools will either improve and ensure serious teaching, or vaporize after a couple of cycles of dismal results and pass rates. The same goes for substandard textbooks and publishers who exist largely because of cartelization and connivance with dishonest board officials who ensure that a few board-paper questions appear from those textbooks; to keep alive the market for those substandard books, in exchange for cuts or commissions. Our legal regime only exacerbates the issue.

Clean the top - the exams and the boards - and you will see an excellent cleanup of the entire sector without doing much more. Excellent education till Grade 8, can easily be provided for an annual fee within 40k, for a school without a heavy land loan to pay off.  

While I was glad there was no re-exam, and frankly, I hadn’t even invested that much effort in the Class 12 exam, that episode was an eye-opener about the complete lack of fairness with the conduct of examinations in India. What I experienced (while inconsequential to me) is a widespread phenomenon in school leaving examinations all over India. Cheating, leakage and a blatant inflation of scores by boards, largely for political reasons has led us to a situation where hundreds of millions of students have exit the school system without the basic ability to write one or two coherent plages; much less solve a basic differential equation or write a 50 line program or write a meaningful report related to a social sciences topic. 

Apart from that, it gives young minds the unfortunate idea, that cheating is acceptable in the real world. Students look for opportunities to bribe or lie simply because it hasn’t been drilled into them that all these things are wrong. Contrary to the common image, cheating is not merely confined to rural areas in remote Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. Not at all. It happens in the most upscale of systems (where marks are simply falsified) and the players involved are often your most educated and sophisticated of academicians as is the case of Mr Ganguly, Mr Fanthome and Mrs Wilson; described above. The very first step towards creating a more honest society based on trust, is to ensure that exams are conducted with absolute fairness in schools.

Such dishonest educators also skew the publication landscape for books. Schools start to choose books, not based on the quality of the content, but based on the likelihood of board-exam questions coming from that book - this of course, is highest for books which exam-board officials have authored or co-authored; a signal of ratification by the exam-board even if no textbook is actually specified. This creates a downward spiral where good books by serious and knowledgeable authors are unable to grab any marketshare, simply because board officials promote specific books, not for their quality, but for monetary benefits from those who publish them. 

After two decades, our exam systems and curriculum are nearly the same! An overdose of technology has been thrown into primary classes, with fancy and expensive digital boards jazzing up the classroom, despite very little useful content for any of these mediums. On the other hand, there has been a visible reluctance to inject technology into processes which actually matter. Involving a bit of computerization and computer based testing, or computer-gradable testing, at least as a portion of our examinations, will drastically reduce chances of malfeasance, paper leakage and cheating which has wrecked our examination system. But this will slice into the pie of the powers that be and hence we see a status quo. Technology can also be used to capture and analyze data and discover patterns. These insights can serve as a useful component of a feedback loop which helps bring in informed decisions to improve the school systems. 
Sadly, none of these uses of technology are likely to be big-ticket projects with a scope for kickbacks and commissions and hence we will not see such projects ever see the light of day. 

It will be entirely unsurprising, even even another two decades from now, we'll still be straddled with our horse-cart era examination systems of physical papers being dispatched and stored in unreliable zones; examination halls which encourage students to cheat and copy; and arbitrary assessment systems where scripts are graded by ignorant, uneducated and ill-qualified script-markers. The reason is very simple: any injection of technology and objective assessment in our school leaving exams, will destroy the economy of corruption which is thriving around these tests. 

My preferred solution: 
Liberalize the board regime. The state boards are dismal and both the national boards have a near monopoly status. There is no need for such a large country to be straddled with the ancient CBSE, CISCE or state board systems.
Allow groups of 5-10 schools to constitute their own board: there can be some general outlines of basic standards (like Common Core in the US) without micro-specifying the exact sub-topics in the syllabus.  Allow boards to innovate. 
Discuss some sort of marking or grading scale; or percentile based reporting; so that the results from different boards arrive in a format which can readily be cross-compared by colleges and universities. 
Anchor the Class 10 or Class 12 "passing" standards, to a common SAT-like test, taken by every student in the country, which avoids going into specifics, but checks for general reading, writing, reasoning and numeracy standards. 
This is also India's only way at developing modern systems catering to kids with extremely diverse aspirations and abilities. Poorer quality exam boards will quickly die a natural death as people vote with their feet. 
This will also create some variety: we have 20 million, or more kids per batch. Some are interested in creative pursuits, some in fine arts, some in sports, some in traditional STEM subjects. We need a variety of systems which can cater to kids with a large spectrum of interests, to bring out the best in all of them. It will be a form of streaming. 
Publish the annual performance of schools in centralized assessments or board examinations like these CBSE and ISC/ICSE tables. This will motivate them to compete and to improve their results. 

(It is entirely co-incidental that in the process of mining school data over the last 6 years, I again opened up a pandora's box related to our examination boards.)