Sunday, June 5, 2016

How and why students in Bihar cheat, and it may not stop soon

More than eight lakh class 10 students of Bihar School Examination Board failed as the pass percentage dropped from 75 to 46 in a year. That it is also the state’s worst performance in nearly two decades mostly slipped under the radar. Patna fared worse than the state’s average. Only 10% students could secure first division marks, down from 21% last year. The percentage of second-division students dropped from 40 to 25. The number of students who registered themselves but did not appear doubled to 30,000. All this did not happen suddenly. The state had to crack down after images of people risking their life and limb by clambering up a multi-storey school building and clinging on window ledges to help their wards cheat last year drew worldwide derision. Mass copying aided by relatives and friends was known. Now its scale and blatancy had shocked the outside world.
Authorities extended the ban on those caught cheating, organised more police teams to deal with ‘helpers’ lurking outside schools, dropped many dodgy centres, installed CCTV cameras in some, and announced exam schedules well in advance.
This was a little like 1996 when an exasperated Patna high court stepped in after Lalu Yadav’s ‘jungle raaj’ had been allowing mass cheating of biblical proportions. Only 12% students passed that year. The executive had other ways to woo its electoral constituencies. Opposition to English was marketed as an anti-elite policy. I had to take the same school-leaving test without English as a mandatory subject. As the court’s grip soon loosened, the success rate climbed back to the 60s and 70s.
A ‘no home centre’ directive that made examinees swap village blocks was a lazy, and clearly ineffective, measure to stop cheating. Family members and well-wishers traveled with examinees and stayed in rented rooms to cook and prepare cheat sheets from popular study aides such as ‘passport’, ‘guess paper’ ‘kunjika’ and atom ‘bomb’. Once questions came out, help was smuggled in.
Students also had mnemonics on hands, and short answers on clipboards. Memory prompts hid under watches and in socks and undergarments. While scraps of paper filled up sacks every evening, some students even took answer-sheets home so that they could write in free time, and deposit them when convenient. Teachers would themselves write answers on the blackboard to make things easy. It was all cleaned up when “flying squads” came calling, with prior intimation of course.
Bored policemen sometime used lathis, and very occasionally, fired warning shots in the air when crowds turned unruly. I remember one such occasion when some scared ‘helpers’  forced their way into a house in our gated community where a wedding was taking place. Cops went in and rounded up a few people. One guy pleaded innocence, but he and others were bundled into a jeep and taken to the local police station. Later, it turned out that he was the groom. He somehow made it to the main ceremony.
After this year’s result, the state’s education minister said fewer successful students was actually good news because it showed the real merit of students, and they would be able to clear the toughest of tests. Days later, an embarrassed government has also had to call some of its class 12 toppers for a re-examination after they looked ridiculously clueless in public about the subjects they had excelled in. When ‘natural cheating’ is curbed, a more organised enterprise always kicks in.
A few years ago, a friend while submitting admission documents at a DU college was scandalised. The clerk pointed to the cut-off list, and returned a candidate from Bihar his mark-sheet. The candidate nonchalantly took out a ‘better’ mark-sheet. He had to run away.  More recently, a cousin at DU had problems with English instructions. He has as part of his Plan B admitted himself to another college back home where “things are easy”.
Bihar has in recent years done better in terms of taking students to government schools. But learning levels remain poor. The state has the worst student-teacher ratio after Uttar Pradesh. Faking degrees to land jobs is rampant. Thousands of teachers hired on contract have been officially found unable to solve questions a fifth-grader would easily do. Teachers overseeing construction, doing election and census assignments only adds to the problem of absenteeism.
In such situations, 1.5 million government school students who mostly learn by rote or do not learnt at all take these make-or-break tests. Boys want degrees to apply for jobs and admissions. Girls in rural areas need them to qualify for decent marriage proposals. One cannot afford not to be a ‘Matric Pass.’ Cheating on these memory-testing exams kill creativity and logical reasoning, but families feel compelled to help, often climbing for the ultimate enabling act that corralled international headlines last year.
Poor learning is not unique to state education in Bihar. Only 55.32% class 10 students passed in Chhattisgarh last week. Haryana fared worse. Last year, more than half of Madhya Pradesh students failed. We must shift from rote learning to modern skills-based training as India needs millions of skilled people. Buxar has fared the worst in Bihar with a pass percentage of only 27. We must identify and monitor such districts. Families have to realise that children will not learn unless their help in cheating stops.

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