Mark moderation, a scheme that fails the merited

Results from the Indian Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) Class 12 exams, and equivalent exams by other boards in the country, are one of the most critical academic evaluations in a student’s life. The marks obtained in these exams determine whether a student secures admission to higher education in sought-after universities that could influence their future careers and lives.

Class 12 exam results for the academic year 2018-19 were announced last week with a pan-India pass percentage of 83.4 percent. Some figures that underline the magnitude of this annual academic exercise are that a total of over 1.2 million students from 12,441 schools appeared at 4,627 exam centers to answer this year’s examinations in all subjects.

The top rank was shared by two girls who each scored 499 out of a total of 500 marks. In second place were three girls who each scored 498 marks. In third rank there were 18 students each with 497 marks, of whom 11 were girls. Though boys outnumbered girls among students sitting for the exams, in the results girls trumped boys by a 9 percent margin — 88.7 percent of girls passed the tests against 79.4 percent of boys. The sheer prowess of girls when it comes to scholastic achievements cannot be denied.

Of the total students who sat for the exams, 94,299 students scored between 90-95 percent, while17,693 students scored above 95 percent. The number of students scoring above 90 percent was a 30 percent jump from the 72,599 students who scored above 90 percent in 2018. Similarly, the number of students scoring above 95 percent registered a hike of 39 percent from the  12,737 that scored above 95 percent last year.

The one mark difference between the first, second and third positions, and the large number of students scoring over 90 and 95 percent attests to the hard work of pupils and the stiff competitions at the top. Sadly, the high scores also bring to the fore the lop-sided mark-moderation scheme that has become a staple of CBSE exam results in recent years.

Given the importance of the secondary school results to the future of students, it is pertinent to ask whether the high scores obtained by many students reflect their true potential, or whether it displays the inability of authorities to come up with an equitable scoring scheme that is fair to all and unjust to none.

Mark moderation was introduced in most school board examinations to bring uniformity in the evaluation process and to compensate for the differing levels of difficulty posed by the introduction of multiple sets of question papers in the same subject. This was done so that statistically the mark distribution graph for students appearing in the exams for a particular year would be an ideal ‘bell curve’.

But rather than a gentle bell graph across the mark spectrum, a sample survey of nearly 30,000 results from this year’s CBSE mathematics exam, and 17,000 results from the accountancy paper, show a sharp spike at the 95 mark point. Around 14 percent in the mathematics sample and nearly 7 percent in accountancy scored exactly 95 percent. The two graphs also reveal that the highest number of students —3,999 in the case of mathematics and 1,125 in accountancy — received precisely 95 marks; no other mark from 0 to 100 attracted more students.

To find out what made 95 marks so beguiling we had to dig deeper. Recently, a former controller of exams for the CBSE, Pavnesh Kumar, revealed the board’s flawed grading system when he inadvertently disclosed that the moderation of marks in CBSE exams are done in a way to ensure that as many students as ‘reasonably possible’ score 95, to improve the overall outcome.

In other words, many of the students who ended up with 95 marks would in fact have attained only 94,  93, 90 or even less, but all of them get moderated to 95 in order to churn up performance. But why stop at 95? The answer is that the CBSE board has fixed the maximum limit for moderated score at 95. Theoretically, this means that a student who actually scores 85 gets a 10 mark moderation, and a student with 90 gets a 5 mark hike, but sadly, the top scorer who ‘earns’ 95 marks gets no moderation.

Defending the biased practice, Mr. Kumar argued, “It is unfair to say that those scoring 95 without moderation are losing out, because their scores are not being reduced. Only the marks of those below 95 are being raised.” To bring home the absurdity of this logic, consider the analogy of two racers who finish first and second in a running race. No one would consider it fair to allow the second placed runner  to share the top podium with the  winner under the pretext that the first-place winner was not being denied his rightful place. But the CBSE obviously considers it quite fair!

Or, consider two students A and B who have appeared for exams in two subjects that will determine their college admissions. In subject 1, student A scores 95 and B gets 90. But B’s 90 is moderated to 95 while A’s mark stays at 95. Meanwhile, in subject 2, A scores 95 and B scores 96. Without moderation A was 4 marks ahead of B in the total, but thanks to the ‘moderation,  B gains the college admission by 1 mark, while A is left out in the cold. The above scenario repeated over several subjects and involving tens of thousands of students shows the extent of discrimination meted out each year by the moderation policy of CBSE.

In this technology-driven era it is inexcusable that students continue to be held hostage to an outdated moderation scheme. At a time when there are thousands of students with top-end marks competing for the limited seats, and given the astronomical cut-off marks needed to enter any prestigious college or university on ‘merit’, the irrational moderation CBSE is an egregious injustice that has to stop, and stop immediately.

Staff Report