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A pandora's box

Assam government’s decision to cancel the High School Leaving Certificate Examination (HSLC), High Madrassa examination and Higher Secondary examinations

A pandora’s box

Sentinel Digital Desk

Assam government's decision to cancel the High School Leaving Certificate Examination (HSLC), High Madrassa examination and Higher Secondary examinations has put all speculations about either online or offline mode of examination at rest. The decision follows advice by the state cabinet that the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic situation is not conducive to conduct the examinations in offline mode. Large numbers of students contracting the virus in May and June triggered the alert in the Health Department against the offline mode of examinations for about seven lakh candidates. Deciding on the evaluation criteria for declaring the results is still going to be a challenging task for the Board of Secondary Education, Assam (SEBA) and the Assam Higher Secondary Education Council (ASHEC) because of multiple consequences. The results of HSLC, High Madrassa examinations are important for getting admissions into higher secondary classes in colleges and schools. The marks of these final examinations are also considered for various government recruitments. Many students migrate from the SEBA to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to pursue the CBSE courses in Class XI and XII while some students migrate from CBSE to colleges under AHSEC. Similarly, many Higher Secondary candidates are planning to seek admissions in Delhi University or other central universities while some among them will sit for medical and engineering entrance examinations. The CBSE and the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) have already declared their criteria for declaring results of Class X and Class XII which have also been accepted by the Supreme Court. The Committees of experts to be constituted in Assam for suggesting the criteria for results will have to ensure that candidates of SEBA, AHSEC, CBSE and CISCE enjoy a level playing field if their results or marks are subjected to standardization of marks or percentage for admission or qualifying for various entrance or competitive examinations as well as central and state government recruitments. The Assam government taking the lead in impressing upon the Central government to take up the issue in advance and push for consensus at the national level can take away a lot of worries of students and their parents over their future education and career goals. The fact that seats in higher educational institutions are limited, the committee for evolving the criteria for declaring results of HSLC and High Madrassa candidates will be walking the tight rope between objective assessment and fairness in performance assessment. The other committee for deciding the criteria for Higher Secondary examination candidates will also be expected to address similar challenges. One way of addressing the problem is to keep open the option to improve the results through sit-down examinations when the situation becomes conducive to hold the examination. Any legal loophole in evaluation criteria may leave scope for challenging the entire process in the court of law by aggrieved candidates. The argument which can be expected to be forwarded is that the pandemic situation calls for providing equal opportunity to every student and the students must not suffer because of the failure of the school authorities or the board to conduct the examinations or assessments. The problem of limited seats in schools and colleges can be addressed by holding entrance examinations but deciding whether such entrance examinations will be held in offline or online mode will again depend on the overall pandemic situation. Delay in offline entrance examinations, if it is decided as a mode of admission, will require postponing of new academic sessions by colleges. Poor internet access in rural areas rules out the possibility of holding online examination involving a large number of candidates. Lessons must be learnt, and steps need to be initiated to make the internet easily accessible in the remotest village. The pandemic has taught home the lessons that internet access is not a luxury and is critical to building resilience against future pandemics as well as other disasters. When other activities of life stay disrupted on account of lockdown and other restrictions, the gloomy situation reminds the central and the state governments to focus on ending the digital divide on the urban-rural landscape. Uncertainty in the pandemic situation calls for an urgent review of central sector schemes of extending internet facilities to villages. The State government has decided to keep the schools closed even after the Summer Vacation came to end due to the prevailing pandemic situation and instructed the schools to keep conducting online classes. Students in rural areas not having access to the internet have remained deprived of education and if this continues for a longer period, the vast majority of students will lag in education and long-term consequences of such deprivation will put the rural students and youth into a disadvantageous situation. The committee of experts will be encountering such heard realities while deciding evaluation criteria for declaring results. Cancellation of final examinations is a pragmatic decision, but it has opened a pandora's box.

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