Board exams in Karnataka: Students in a fix

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“On Wednesday, I had a Hindi exam. I was well prepared. But our teacher informed us the previous day that the exam had been postponed. I don’t know when the exams will start again. We are really confused,” said Sangeetha, a class 9 student who studies in a private school in Bengaluru.

On March 12, the Supreme Court set aside the interim order of a division bench of the High Court of Karnataka, which had given the State government a green signal to conduct board exams for the summative assessment of students of classes 5, 8, and 9. Following the apex court order, the Education Department stopped the exams of these classes, which began on March 11. This was the third twist within a week to the saga of whether or not students of these classes can be made to write a board examination.

Twists and turns

On March 6, a single-judge bench of the High Court quashed the examination process for classes 5, 8, and 9, citing procedural lapses, after the Organisation for Unaided Recognized Schools and Registered Unaided Private Schools Management Association, Karnataka, took the issue to court.

However, the Karnataka government challenged it before a division bench, which stayed the single-bench order. Following this, exams began on March 11 (Monday) as per schedule.

The association then approached the Supreme Court. The apex court said that “prima facie the notifications [to hold board exams] appear to be issued in violation of the provisions contained in Section 30 of the RTE Act,” which states that no child is required to pass any Board exam till completion of elementary education, that is class 1 to 8.

Though the apex court said that “the government should not be permitted to hold board exams for these classes and thereby unnecessarily creating complication in education policy affecting the career of students as the single-judge bench had already quashed notifications as illegal”, it said that the division bench of the High Court could decide government’s appeal on merit without being influenced by its observations.

By the time the apex court passed its order, class 5 students had completed two of their four exams, and classes 8 and 9 had two of their six. Exams for these classes stand postponed until further orders, while class 11 exams are already over.

Now, the case is back in the High Court, with the Supreme Court asking the division bench to adjudicate the government’s appeal on its merits, that is, to pass final judgment on the appeal by deciding whether the March 6 judgement of the single-judge bench requires interference or not. 

While the legalities of the issue are one aspect of the imbroglio, the episode has left students, parents, and teachers baffled and worried. Sulochana, a parent from Bengaluru whose son’s exams have stopped midway, alleged, “Due to the unscientific decisions of the government and the vested interest of some of the petitioners, children are suffering.”

Students of class 8 and 9 on the first day of the examination at Government Model High School Matadahalli, Bengaluru, on March 11.

Students of class 8 and 9 on the first day of the examination at Government Model High School Matadahalli, Bengaluru, on March 11.
| Photo Credit:
SUDHAKARA JAIN

How it all started

The controversy’s roots are in the 2020-21 and 2022-22 academic years when schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue then, too, went all the way to the Supreme Court.

After the pandemic, the government launched Kalika Chetarike, a programme to address gaps in learning caused by the lockdown. To determine the programme’s success, the Karnataka State Examination and Assessment Board (KSEAB) introduced an exam for classes 5 and 8 in 2022-23.

The Registered Unaided Private Schools’ Management Association Karnataka, the Karnataka Unaided Schools Managements’ Association, and other private school associations challenged this in the High Court.

The petitioners questioned the method of assessment without framing rules according to the Right to Education Act 2009, as amended in 2019. They also questioned the correctness of changing the assessment method from school-level to board-level exams.

The High Court then quashed the government’s circular, changing the method of assessment. Though the court termed “laudable” the government’s move to introduce a uniform method of assessment, it said the change in the process did not stand to scrutiny of law as they were made without framing the required rules.

The court declined to accept the government’s contention that it did not frame the rules as the year-end assessment process came under the provisions of the Karnataka Education Act for the State syllabus. The Department of School Education and Literacy (DSEL) challenged the single-judge order before a division bench and obtained a green signal to conduct the examination.

The associations then moved the Supreme Court, which upheld the interim order of the division bench of the High Court and gave permission to conduct the examination with the condition that no student can be detained. The case was transferred back to the division bench of the High Court. The DSEL conducted the board exam for classes 5 and 8 in 2022-23.

Instead of pursuing its appeal to take to its logical end in law, the government on December 8, 2023, told the division bench that its appeal would not survive for consideration since it is issuing fresh notifications in October-November 2023 for conducting board examinations for classes 5,8,9 and 11 for the academic year 2023-24. Following this, the division bench disposed of the appeal for having become infructuous. 

A sense of déjà vu

There is a sense of déjà vuin what transpired over the last week in courts, but this time, unlike earlier, theexams have been halted midway.

“My son is studying in class 8, and he is disturbed by the sudden developments. Students were already facing the examination stress, and two tests had been completed. Now this uncertainty is making things worse,” said Babitha Salian, a parent from Dharawad in North Karnataka.

The Supreme Court observed that the division bench of the High Court ought not to have allowed the conduct of board examination through an interim order after two single bench decisions had earlier quashed similar notifications or circulars. It said the board exam violated provisions of the Right to Education Act, “which prohibit exposing children to the rigours of board exams till they finish elementary education.”

The High Court, while quashing the order, also said that board exams were held without framing the rules under Sections 22 and 145 of the Karnataka Education Act, 1983. This act mandates that the government frame rules for the implementation of the examination system and seek views from stakeholders prior to finalising such rules.

While the government attempted to take shelter under a State law rather than RTE, it was clearly not on solid ground even there, and many feel that, given the experience last year, the government should have been better prepared.

“Last year also, it was a major setback in the court to the State government. The court noticed that the government didn’t consult any stakeholders before announcing the notification for the board examination. It also pointed out that the government didn’t frame proper rules and regulations to conduct the examination. It is hard to believe that this year also, the government repeated that same thing. Because of this negligence, students, parents and teachers are suffering,” a teacher from Bengaluru who wished to remain anonymous said.

Niranjanaradhya V.P., a development educationist, faulted the State government for trying to shelter under its own Act while the Right to Education Act is in force across the country. Section 30 of the Right to Education Act states that “No child shall be required to pass any Board examination till completion of elementary education,” he said.

“The Right to Education Act was enacted by the UPA government in 2009 and implemented in 2010, and it is in force across the country. RTE Act recognizes and prescribes only continuous and comprehensive evaluation … It is unfortunate that the government violated the law and introduced board exams much against the letter and spirit of the RTE Act. Therefore, we urge the state government to respect the best interest of the children as per the law and to adopt continuous and comprehensive evaluation as the process at the school level for assessment.”

‘Vested interests’

While the central question is whether or not children should be required to write board exams at the elementary school level, the Karnataka government, in its ongoing arguments before the High Court, has also contended that “vested interests” are at play in dragging the issue to the court, linking it to the issue of “illegal schools.”

During a survey last year, the Education Department found that as many as 1,316 schools were being run illegally across the State, including 95 schools that taught the central curriculum (such as ICSE and CBSE) after getting permission to run classes with the State curriculum, collecting vast sums of money from parents. Since they were able to get away for a good ten years with no board exams until then, the government decided that board exams at an earlier level would also help catch such schools.

“Along with this, there is a huge lobby of private book publishers in the State. Instead of following the State curriculum, many schools were prescribing private publishers’ books additionally and charging more. Earlier, many private schools were conducting annual examinations at the school level on the basis of privately published books but not on the basis of the State syllabus. These unethical practices were curbed by the board examination implemented by the state government,” said a teacher of a school near Kanakapura Road.

The government, in its ongoing arguments before the High Court, has contended that associations are opposing the proposed uniform assessment because students studying in certain schools run by the members of petitioners’ associations are not in a position to answer questions based on the prescribed textbooks.

The teacher rued that the government holding examinations without adhering to rules and regulations had proved a significant advantage for unauthorised schools and private book publishers, while students and parents suffered. “At the end of the day, either way, it is students and teachers who are at the receiving end,” he said, as the arguments for and against board exams continued in the court.

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