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Why do we fuss so much about board exams?

(Opinion column in Khaleej TImes daed 21 February, 2023)

‘What you do in the next few weeks will decide how successful you are in life. There is no scope for failure,’ a teacher reportedly said, addressing her class about the forthcoming boards exams.

It is hard to say if the statement sounds ominous, advisory or downright bullying, but a classroom of sixteen-year-olds sat in stilled silence, not disregarding the gravity of what they had just heard but fretting inwardly that their teacher had put them on an ultimatum. Buck up or back out.

It is that time of the year when lakhs of highschoolers feel flogged by the pressure of board exams. Year after year, students travel this rocky road, saddled with expectations of parents, fears of their own and steamrollering by teachers. And every year, good students pass out, with varying degrees of merit, find their way in life and make inroads into their career - some with relative ease, the others with extra labour. Yet, they all make it in the end. They all find their niches. So, what was the teacher’s ultimatum all about? Why is there so much panting over what is probably the first major instance of self-assessment the children are putting themselves through?

Every year, around this time, I dwell in uneasy exam thoughts on behalf of millions of students who are busy tying up the final knots to take what they have been made to believe is a ‘make or break’ test in their life. It is with great sympathy that I assess the children’s state, neither undermining the value of education nor belittling the importance of exams in their lives. But it rankles me that children are made to believe that these board exams will be a barometer of their intelligence, self-worth and social growth, and above all, an indication of how well or ill they do in their lives in terms of wealth generation, social status and happy living.

To be fair, parents have toned down their voices in the past few years after debates over children’s mental health gained primacy and instances of teenage depression peaked following exam and admission stress. Despite significant decrease in the decibel levels, undercurrents of fear and foreboding continue to plague students, thanks to covert references to the board exams being a determining factor that builds careers. Students are still keyed up to breaking points and we, as parents, teachers and guardians, need to find definitive ways to relieve them of the pressure.

A little stress will always work as a motivation; a spur in times of looming lethargy, but what I see among many students, even those who have supportive parents, is a mindset that does not allow them to grow into their best versions. It is here that we adults must step in and be a beacon to them, guiding them through their crucial junctures, not by placing excessive importance on performance but by giving them insights into what is good education and how it is in the learning that the merit lies.

We are all eager for our children to build impeccable futures, but as people who have walked many miles crossing puddles and pitfalls of every conceivable kind, we also know that life can be quirky, delivering loose balls at times, and googlies at the others. To make our children cognizant of this eccentric nature of life and to teach them ways to cope when things go awry is what we must focus on, even when they are burning the midnight oil for an exam that several years down the lane will only be a statistic that no one will remember.

Like many other tests in life, the board exams are just one of those check posts in life that we need to pass through. They allow our children to enter the next phase of their lives and explore newer things. It does not determine their prospects in the larger scheme of things, nor stall their progress even if they fall short for some unpredictable reason. It is a pitstop in their journey to wherever they want to go based on their interest and inclination, and our duty is to give them the confidence they need to take bold decisions and action.

As parents, we have no right to imply that their failure will bring us social shame; that their percentiles determine our worth as successful parents. We have no license to terrrorise them into becoming geeks with Google prospects. As teachers, we must not let their stress and fear drive our KPI indices and appraisals. If there is anything we can do for them in these testing times, it is to reassure them that no matter what numbers they receive, life will always find them ways to thrive if they are willing to strive without giving up or going astray.

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