Friday, June 7, 2013

Mark Tampering

(This post is the 3rd post in the one-month challenge I gave myself.)

That title almost sounds like someone's name. Anyway, I had quite a tiring day and am very sleepy, but for some strange reason I suddenly remembered I was supposed to blog, so here I am- writing..

So starting where I left yesterday.. The article does some data analysis and goes on to conclude that there is evidence for mark tampering. As I mentioned yesterday, this is the part of the article I find commendable. Getting the data was easy but doing this basic data analysis was smart.

Now, all of us (who studied in Indian schools) have been told that examiners are only human and they "might" give you grace marks. We never knew if it was real. And I like the fact that this article has provided indirect evidence for mark tampering. Seeing the fact that 33 different scores have not been scored by ANYONE in the entire country clearly indicates something is going on. And I admit that though I had expected some teachers to give "grace marks" I did not literally everyone did. Either the examiners are asked to round off certain marks or they are using some sort of algorithm to do the rounding (because nothing but an organized effort can lead to such uniform results across the country).
Fine. I think the real question here is about the ethics of mark tampering. Is adding (or subtracting) 1 or 2 marks bad? Is it bad in some cases or all cases?

First, I believe that marks in general are subjective. And I say that because I have tried to grade some papers before (obviously not for the board exam, but anyway..). Even when the question is a math problem and there are specific steps to solve it, how much partial credit you give is ALWAYS subjective. For eg., if there are 5 steps in a 5 mark problem and someone got 2 steps right- do you give them only 2 marks? What if the first step is not obvious but the rest follow directly? What if the person has tried an alternate method not mentioned in your grade guidelines? Do you give points for neat work? (I used to think "No" for this question, but after correcting about 50 papers I really think neatness should be awarded 5 points extra. Seriously.) Do you cut points because you can't make head or tail out of what the student has written? The questions go on.
So, given that the correction process is anyway subjective, is it really wrong to give 1 or 2 points less or more? I think not. It really doesn't matter.

But this lead me to an Ayn Rand-ish question - If a guy who 'deserved' only 32 ends up getting 35, why should the guy who got 92 not get 95 out of grace? Why are examiners kinder to the guy who didn't study but almost cruel (by being extra careful) with the guys who really work hard? At the outset, this aspect does sound unethical. One would think the guy who got 92 definitely deserves the "grace" as much as (if not more than) the guy who got 32. After all, he worked a lot more. So, should we have either no tampering or universal tampering?
I think neither. The reason will be apparent when you look at what each guy gets out of the tampering.* The guy who scored 32, in the absence of "grace" marks would have waited a few months (or a year, I don't know which!) and given the exam again. And would probably have passed this time. By denying him the grace marks, the board would be making him waste a year and gaining nothing out of it. But more importantly, if they do make him pass, it is not like he would get a decent college seat and deprive a more deserving candidate or something. People with "just pass" on their grade cards don't get into fancy colleges or do engineering/medicine. Most probably he would join some job somewhere (in a shop or something) or go on and do some lousy programming course and hunt for a job. The best he could do with the 35 is get into a really low ranked arts college. Which means giving him 35 did not harm anyone or anything and made no difference to the system at all. However, it did make his life just a little easier.
Now, of course, you can't do the same thing to the guy who scored 92. Giving him 3 marks extra (which he didn't "deserve") would push him ahead of hundreds of other students who performed better than him and possibly deprive them of a college seat in some reputed institution. Here, mark tampering is definitely harmful.

What about the cases in between? Why not give someone scores like 70, 71, 73, 75 or 77? Why did they not give any 85s or 87s? Honestly, I have no idea why. It doesn't even look like they are trying to give round numbers (I would think 85 was round enough!). I can see no pattern to the kind of scores that they have given, but clearly there is something fishy going on here because it is unbelievable that nobody in the nation got an 85.

That being said, I still feel the mark tampering is not good. That's because if an entire system rounds off 32s to 35s, then why not keep 32 as the cutoff? Then, would people start rounding 31s and 30s to 32? Where does this stop? This is just a vicious circle because for every official cut-off you keep, the unofficial cut-off is slightly lesser I think that maybe if a student fails in only 1 subject, you could round off his marks. But uniformly rounding off marks for an entire country will not be good in the long run.

One of my friends who also wrote about this article mentioned that many students who score poorly do so because of poor backgrounds/bad school infrastructure etc. He sees the "grace marks" as a leveling the field thing. In a way, I think that may be valid. But then again, we go back to the vicious circle argument. So, I think one way we could 'level the field' is keep a lower cutoff for rural/economically backward students. (Note that I said "economically" backward. Someday I will write about why I think social strata based reservation doesn't make sense anymore.) And while doing this, try to allocate more resources to improving schools in rural areas and providing more incentives for these students. I don't see mark tampering as a good solution for this issue in any case.

In sum, I feel that 
  • Mark tampering is definitely going on.
  • It may not be a completely bad thing for an individual teacher to round off scores like 32 or 33 to 35. But doing this across the system is equivalent to decreasing the pass cut-off and doesn't make sense. (also making students study for 32 instead of 35!). 
  • If it really needs to be done, the bonus points could be given on a case-by-case basis, after taking into account the student's overall performance, economic background etc. (I know this is not very straight forward to implement..)

Tomorrow: After the long and serious discussion, going to something light and appreciated by most Indians- A post about (but not compiling) ... ....Rajnikanth jokes! :)

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