Compounding the Error – Marks inflation at Delhi University: Shobhit Mahajan
Guest post by SHOBHIT MAHAJAN
In politics, policy making or indeed any interaction with the larger world, one notices a distinct characteristic – one makes a decision, then facts or circumstances make it obvious that it was a wrong or bad one. And what does one do? In most cases, one continues to take further decisions to bolster the impression that the original decision taken was correct and in the process, makes matters worse. This is relatively innocuous in normal social interaction but disastrous in the public sphere as we have witnessed in mishandling of the events related to the Lokpal movement. A very similar situation has recently emerged in the University of Delhi.
Much ink has been spilt on the woes of the Semesterization that was done in the University over the last one year. That the decision, in context, was a huge mistake is obvious to anyone who is either not blinkered by the disinformation blitz of the University or is ideologically motivated. The decision I refer to is of course, NOT semesterization per se, though that too can be argued, but the way it was done, without doing the necessary groundwork in terms of infrastructure, buy-in of the stake holders etc. This distinction is important to make since the proponents seem to believe that people who are opposing it are opposing the principle of having semester-long academic terms.
Given that it was obvious that the decision was a bad one, what would one expect an enlightened and self confident administration to do? Of course, to admit the mistake, change course midstream and come up with a better system- or in its absence, revert to a perfectly well run, well tried system as it existed. But that would be assuming that the administration has these sterling qualities. What we have seen is in fact a series of actions which have only compounded the mess.
Several of these actions have been well documented and so one needn’t recount them again. But the most recent ones have such a huge bearing on the academic strength and reputation of the institution that they need to be pointed out. I refer of course to the huge inflation of grades or marks that has been done in the first semester examinations in nearly all courses. Marks, like money, when inflated, might make the recipient feel good, but it is obvious that the intrinsic value remains depleted and hence soon they become worthless.
One look at the overall results across disciplines makes it clear that huge grade inflation has been done. How else does one explain such a large number of students getting cent per cent marks in the sciences for instance, where till last year, the highest marks obtained were in the mid eighties? Or, even more blatantly, marks like 99% in subjects like Economics or English or Philosophy, where getting even a first division was considered a huge achievement? Surely the argument that the students have suddenly gotten smarter flies in the face of historical as well as biological logic.
So what is happening and why? The why is fairly easy to gauge- the university has instructed – yes, that is precisely what has happened as I will recount- the evaluators to make sure that everyone does well in the examinations. The results being then taken, ipso facto, as a validation of the argument that semesterization is good and desirable. The how it happened is an example of academic dishonesty.
There are basically two steps at which intervention can be done. The University, because of its peculiar federal structure at the undergraduate level, has a unique method of setting the examination papers. A team of teachers comes up with possible question papers which are then “moderated” by another expert group. It is at this level that the first intervention took place- the moderators received clear instructions from the University authorities to ensure that the question papers were watered down. When some moderators refused, they were promptly replaced.
So we now had the test papers which were meant to make sure that even the worst students could do reasonably well. Never mind academic standards or rigour. But that by itself didn’t seem to be enough as became obvious when the answer scripts were graded. The raw scores, so to say, were still not good enough for the University to proclaim, like the Commisars of the past, the superiority of their brainchild or system.
So we have another round of moderation- this time of the exam results. In this again, instructions were given to see that grades are inflated so as to get a decent result. The combination of these two moderations is what resulted in two things- one, the overall result became much better and secondly, the highest scorers got ridiculous marks like 100% even in disciplines like the humanities.
What does this mean for the academic health and reputation of the institution? Evaluation of students is, I suppose, meant to test their understanding of the subject, their power of critical thinking and ability to assimilate the syllabus. This is to provide an honest benchmark for an outsider to gauge the student’s appropriateness for a job, for further academic work etc. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen when it is obvious to outsiders that the marks are not a reflection of the student’s abilities- either by themselves or in a comparative sense.
Dictators in banana republics, or lately in some Central Asian and African countries are well known to rig elections- anything less than 99% vote in their favour is unacceptable. And it is not 100% to proclaim them to be “free and fair”. Maybe the authorities in the University need to learn from history as to how these countries then fare historically. But that assumes humility, self-confidence and enlightenment on their part- traits which sadly don’t seem to be evident at all.
Shobhit Mahajan is Professor in the Department of Physics and Astrophysics, Delhi University