Covid-19 forces cancellation of key school-leaving exams in India

The grade 12 exams were delayed this year and slated to begin in May.
The grade 12 exams were delayed this year and slated to begin in May.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - India's major school-leaving examinations were called off on Tuesday (June 1), bringing relief to students and parents who were concerned that the tests might go ahead despite the Covid-19 pandemic putting children's lives at risk.

This was announced after a key government meeting on Tuesday chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tweeted to describe the decision as "one that safeguards the health as well as future of our youth".

The grade 12 exams, held usually in February and March, were delayed this year and slated to begin in May.

But the calamitous second wave of the pandemic caused the exams to be pushed back further with a proposal to hold them between July 15 and Aug 26. Results, normally declared in May, were expected to be announced in September instead.

While the pandemic has begun easing - with daily cases falling from a peak of more than 400,000 in early May to less than 150,000 now - a popular campaign was launched in May by students and their supporters for the exams to be cancelled.

Schools have mostly been closed since March last year, and there were fears that holding the exams would expose students to infections. Most exam candidates are around 17 and ineligible for vaccination in India, which is currently open only to those 18 and above.

The campaign even garnered the support of opposition politicians, including Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

A petition against holding the exams was filed in the Supreme Court as well, which on May 31 asked the government for "good and cogent" reasons for the tests to go ahead. The government was exploring various possibilities, including holding exams for a limited number of subjects and reducing their duration.

Dr Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Springdales School in Delhi, said the decision to cancel the exams should have been announced sooner.

"There has been so much uncertainty, so much worry and anxiety. At least this decision has now brought in a certain level of empathy and compassion towards the young children," she told The Straits Times.

Grade 12 students at her school were called in for offline "pre-boards", mock preparations held before the actual exams, in March. This was before the second wave hit and when exams were still scheduled for May.

Covid-19 cases, however, began surging in April and the government announced a lockdown on April 19, which is still in force.

"So there has been this constant concern they (students and their families) have been living with since February because in normal circumstances, pre-boards would have been held then," Dr Wattal added.

Results of the exams are critical for students, as admission into higher education institutes are based on scores obtained in the exams. The delay in holding them and declaring results have particularly worried many students who are seeking to gain admission into universities abroad this year.

The Central Board of Secondary Education, which holds the exams, has said students will now be assessed according to "well-defined objective criteria in a time-bound manner". Students dissatisfied with the results will have an opportunity to take the exams later when the pandemic situation eases, it added in a statement.

The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, another national-level board of school education, also announced on Tuesday that it is cancelling its school-leaving exams. Results for its students will now be based on a mechanism that will include internal evaluations conducted by schools.

These "board exams" had commenced last year in February and mostly finished by the time India began its lockdown on March 25. The remaining exams were later cancelled because of the pandemic.

Various state education boards, which also conduct school-leaving exams, are yet to announce their decision, but many are expected to follow the central government's decision to cancel the exams.

The Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board cancelled its grade 12 exams on Wednesday (June 2). It had been scheduled for July.

Ms Anusha Attree, a grade 12 student in Noida, a suburb of Delhi, said that holding the exams would have been unfair for students who have been through the emotional trauma of losing their parents and other loved ones during the pandemic.

The 17-year-old was relieved a final decision has been made as she can now focus on preparing for other exams she needs to take later in the year to secure admission into a university.

"We were studying for the board exams in a really uncertain environment, always unsure if they would actually happen or not," she told ST.