As he is wont to do in often seeking to make an almighty splash, State minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has now stoked another controversy, this time over inflation of marks in State class X board fils. Holding among other charges the Education portfolio, Sarma claims that Secondary Education Board, Assam (SEBA) awards ‘hidden’ grace marks to raise the pass percentage at the behest of ‘political masters’ in Dispur. This is in addition to the grace marks normally awarded to students falling short of the minimum pass marks by just a few marks. However, according to Sarma, ‘hidden’ grace marks are awarded across the spectrum — not only benefiting examinees comprehensively failing a paper, but also better performers to help them secure ‘star’ marks (75% or above) or ‘letter’ marks (80% or above). If 9 ‘hidden’ grace marks were added to all HSLC examinees in 2007, 15 were added in 2008, 14 in 2009, 10 in 2010 and 18 in 2011. This was done to raise the HSLC pass percentage — Sarma points out that while the pass percentage languished between 25-30% during the Eighties and the Nineties, it jumped to 60-70% from 2001 onwards. That was the year the Congress came to power in Assam, so Sarma is leaving no doubts as to which political dispensation he is targeting. What he is insinuating is obvious — that during the Congress rule of 15 years, there was a race of sorts to keep jacking up the HSLC pass percentage every year. Piquantly, Sarma himself was in charge of Education for a couple of years in Congress regime, though he claims that the HSLC pass percentage fell during his first year as Education minister, but later he was ‘bypassed’ by board functiories who took their orders ‘from the very top’. Surely this is a claim that must be taken with a large pinch of salt.
Anyone acquainted with Sarma’s clout and style of functioning will find it very hard to believe that he can be kept in the dark and rendered a mere onlooker in matters concerning his ministry. Faced with the slur that the Congress regime directed SEBA to manipulate marks, artificially improve pass percentages and thereby make the people feel good, a livid Tarun Gogoi has now countered that Sarma, as a minister, hardly ever listened to him, and that the CBI should probe into his allegations. With the HSLC results this year due to be out in a month, a panel of vice-chancellors of four varsities has been set up to determine the formula of awarding grace marks. So things are likely to be tighter this year — Sarma believes pass percentage of HSLC 2017 may come down drastically to 22-23%. We will then be back to the bad, old days when nearly three out of every four HSLC examinees failed to make the grade. Considering that about 4 lakh examinees take the HSLC every year nowadays, this State is staring at a huge wastage of precious human resource in formative years. But let us not forget that even when 60-70% examinees were clearing the HSLC, little thought was spared about the bleak prospects of those who failed to secure first division marks. All this cannot be a matter of cheap political blame game. If it is true that HSLC pass percentages have improved in the last 15 years only because marks were cynically inflated, it is an unforgiveable betrayal of students, if not of the cause of education itself. The examinees, after all, did not ask to be passed in such manner. And those who passed to pursue further studies and build a career will have to live with others doubting their merit.
While the State school system has failed miserably over the decades in equipping students with the skills to clear standardised board tests, insult has been added to injury by the allegation that the powers-be helped the undeserving to pass. But what made the present Education minister make this allegation now? This is where some former and serving education administrators as well as academicians have questioned Sarma’s motive, pointing out that Central boards like CBSE and other State boards too follow a policy of moderating marks of examinees if they rrowly miss pass mark, or in case of very tough or out-of-syllabus questions. These boards used to award up to 10-15% extra marks in Mathematics and some other subjects. The number of CBSE students securing 95% and above aggregate scores has increased 20-fold in a six-year period from 2008 to 2014, and surely that cannot be attributed to an explosion of merit, it has been pointed out. Interestingly, CBSE and 31 State boards in a crucial meet last month decided to scrap the marks moderation policy. The CBSE wanted all the State boards united on this, so that its students will not be put at disadvantage! The practice of awarding grace marks will remain, but it will be recorded in the examinee’s marksheet; the CBSE website will clearly mention the mechanism used to award grace marks and how much. This shows that a consensus is building up across the country to stop the practice of spiking examinees’ marks to show higher scoring results. Himanta Biswa Sarma’s ‘revelation’ is thus merely an acknowledgement of a countrywide malpractice that is thankfully ending this year. Rather than blaming the SEBA unfairly on this count, the Education minister ought to apply his mind on how best to bring it on par with Central boards, build on the Gunotsav initiative while ensuring that students here get to learn about their State. He can start by wiping the dust off three previous reports on overhauling the SEBA.