The exam paper that stumped all – by Mona Bopanna

How will India respond in 2022 to this regressive stance towards women?

In December, 2021, millions of secondary school students in India appeared for their Class X (Grade 10) exams conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).

Since its inception in the 1920s, the Board has gone through several changes and emerged as one of the largest such organisations in the world, with more than 25,000 school — based in India and other countries — affiliated to it. Each year, about 2 million students take the secondary board exams.

As anyone familiar with the education system in India knows, these exams are not only the first major ones in a student’s life, the Class X exams (and the subsequent results) also go a long way in determining one’s future course of education and thereby career.

So, one can safely assume that most of these kids, if not all, would have been suitably prepared for the papers, and were nervous as well, especially considering the difficulties they’ve endured in the last couple of years.

Imagine their shock when they read a comprehension passage in the English paper which has since sparked outrage among students, parents, and politicians, leading to CBSE dropping the passage and awarding full marks to all students for the questions related to it.

Here are a few lines excerpted from the controversial passage:

  • Emancipation of women destroyed the parent’s authority over the children.
  • It was only by accepting her husband’s way that a mother could gain obedience over the younger ones.
  • In the twentieth century children became fewer and the feminist revolt was the result (more on this later).
  • The mother did not exemplify the obedience upon which she still tried to insist… In bringing the man down from his pedestal the wife and the mother deprived herself, in fact of the means of discipline.

This ‘unseen passage’ – in other words, students need to comprehend the passage they had not previously read as part of their curriculum and pick the best answer out of multiple choices – went viral on social media as well, with people from all walks of life accusing CBSE of harbouring misogynistic and regressive opinions. The hashtag ‘CBSE insults women’ started trending on Twitter.

In an attempt to clarify its position, the Board actually made it worse by saying the writer ‘takes a light-hearted approach to life. So, it seems, the writer is not a male-chauvinist pig, nor is he a disgruntled husband and he did not have his family’s welfare at his heart, all of the above being options given to the students in this multiple-choice question.

Thousands of students, many among them girls who have already encountered misogyny in various spheres of their young lives, did choose the option that the writer was an MCP. But they were wrong – it was all done in jest! Every time in future when they face discrimination because of race, gender, religious beliefs or any such thing, they will think back to this day when they were told it was after all a light-hearted issue.

One of the suggested titles for the passage was ‘Place of children and servants at home.’ We completely understand and agree with those who called out the Board for its elitist anti-equality and feudal mindset.

Faced with mounting criticism, the Board Tweeted, “CBSE is committed to equity and excellence in education and promotes inclusiveness and gender sensitivity… CBSE regrets this unfortunate incident and is setting up an expert committee to thoroughly review and strengthen the question paper-setting process…”

We understand the process of setting a CBSE question paper is quite rigorous. It involves two separate panels of subject experts for each subject: paper setters and moderators. The experts’ identities are kept confidential, even from one another, and the paper-setters do not know if the Board will use the paper set by them. It’s the moderators who put together the final sets of questions and submit those to the board.

All of them, the paper-setters, and moderators, are required to have a post-graduate degree in that particular or allied subject and a minimum of 10 years’ teaching experience.

Which takes us back to Point (c). How does one explain the highly qualified and experienced paper-setters/moderators coming up with a sentence like ‘In the twentieth century children became fewer and the feminist revolt was the result?’ It is wrong at so many levels: starting with grammar and syntax, moving on to the meaning. These lines imply that with women deciding to have fewer children, they turned their attention to other issues such as emancipation. Or, perhaps it was the other way round – once women achieved a certain degree of freedom, they decided to have fewer children.

While the decision to appoint an expert committee to review the paper-setting system is certainly welcome, one wonders if there’ll ever be an inquiry into what kind of thought process led to this whole fiasco. This incident has once again highlighted the lack of accountability and transparency in the education system in India and one hopes this is the wake-up call for the authorities to redress these issues.

Mona Bopanna
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