NEW DELHI — Sadhvi Konchada took her fifth and final high school board exam this week. She was nervous, if not inexperienced, having already taken 11 board exams, pre-board exams or pre-pre-board exams since January, with more tests to come. By the time she enters college, Sadhvi will have taken 22 board or college entrance exams.
Keith Bedford for The New York Times
Sadhvi Konchada, 17, a senior, has daily tutorials, studies constantly and considers her schedule ridiculous.
Readers shared their thoughts on this article.
Sadhvi, 17, a senior, has daily tutorials, studies constantly and considers her schedule ridiculous. But it is not uncommon. At her middle-class apartment complex, testing is an obsession for families of high school students. Parents gossip about scores, anguish about them and pray over them. Tutors publicly display practice-test results and update parents with text messages comparing the scores of their child against those of others. Students spend months preparing for tests, or worrying about them.
“We have to keep them under pressure,” said one mother, Jaya Samaddar, whose daughter is studying for the national exams administered in the 10th grade. “We have no other choice.”
India has one of the world’s youngest populations, often called its “demographic dividend,” yet as the middle class has steadily grown, so has the cutthroat competition for the limited slots in the country’s system of higher education.
High school seniors must pass national board exams to graduate from high school. But those same board exams also serve as the rough equivalent of SATs for students applying to most programs in many universities, especially in the humanities. However, students applying to some universities, especially those with technical programs like engineering, must also take separate entrance exams.
Since admissions are based overwhelmingly on board and entrance exams, testing season has mutated into a period of excruciating pressure for students and their families. The pressure is so intense that a leading diabetes clinic in New Delhi this month attributed a sharp spike in patients with high blood sugar or elevated blood pressure to rising stress brought on by their children’s testing season. Last week, an 18-year-old student in New Delhi hanged himself from a ceiling fan at home after leaving a suicide note worrying that he had not done well on part of the 12th-grade board exam.
The mania over testing underscores a fundamental disconnect in Indian education: Even as elite Indian students have achieved remarkable success studying overseas, the Indian educational system is widely considered to be failing both the tens of millions of students at the bottom, who drop out before high school, and the smaller pool at the top, who are competing for entrance into universities that are too few and too underfinanced.
Education presents such a stubborn problem, especially access to quality education, that experts warn that the future advantages of India’s youthful population could become a disadvantage if the government cannot improve the system rapidly enough to provide more students a chance at college. Of the 186 million students in India, only 12.4 percent are enrolled in higher education, one of the lowest ratios in the world.
“If you have 150 million or 160 million children who don’t go to college, what is going to happen to them 10 or 15 years from now?” asked Kapil Sibal, the government minister overseeing education. “The demographic dividend will become a demographic disaster.”
Education reform has become a centerpiece of the Congress Party-led government. The federal Right to Education Act takes effect on April 1, focusing on expanding free and compulsory education, lowering teacher ratios and a host of other goals, even as the government continues to separately push forward on a major school construction program.
Higher education presents a problem of quantity and quality. Even as India’s top students are world class, most Indian universities are not, with roughly two-thirds of colleges and universities rated below standard. And the limited number of quality schools is especially problematic given that 40 million extra students are expected during the coming decade.
This creates incredible competition for entrance into elite universities, especially the premier science institution, the Indian Institutes of Technology, or I.I.T. In 2008, 320,000 students took the school’s entrance exams for 8,000 vacancies.
Parents and students are acutely aware of these odds, and aware that multinational corporations and top Indian companies recruit disproportionately from these schools. At the East End Apartments, the cluster of high-rise buildings where Sadhvi lives, at least three private tutoring centers give daily support in math, physics, chemistry and other subjects. Most students are focused on engineering or business and the tutors say the pressure is not limited to students and parents.
Readers shared their thoughts on this article.
“Pressure is on me,” said Rinky Awasthi, who tutors in her apartment. “For the last 10 years, my students are at the top end of East End Apartments.”
Ms. Awasthi posts practice-test results in the hallway outside her apartment and texts the scores to parents so they can see how their child is stacking up.
For parents, the anxiety derives from fears that a bad score could derail their child’s future, but also from a social competitiveness for a child to score above the coveted 90-percent level. “The score of the child has become a status symbol,” Ms. Samaddar said. “If we go to a party these days, everybody asks me, ‘How is your child doing?’ No one asks about my health. The question is, ‘What is your child’s academic status?’ ”
Her daughter, Meetali, is considering engineering but must score well on the 10th-grade exams to qualify for her school’s science “stream.” Ms. Samaddar said her daughter had not gone to a movie in months. “Sometimes I hear her talking on the phone, telling a friend, ‘Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep. You have three tests tomorrow.’ And I feel bad.”
Domestic critics say the emphasis on standardized exams has overly focused Indian education on rote drilling and test-focused exercises. Next year, Mr. Sibal is eliminating the 10th-grade exams and introducing a grading system to evaluate students, partly to encourage more creativity and reduce the pressure.
Having finished her board exams this week, Sadhvi Konchada is now preparing for entrance exams. She has applied to two top schools in architecture and design, but because those programs are so competitive, she is also applying to five or six engineering schools, each with its own entrance exam. To prepare, she goes to daily tutorials in math and science and also has a special Sunday tutor to, as she puts it, “enhance your creative abilities.”
She is so busy with test prep that there is one thing she almost never does.
“People hardly go to school,” she said. “They rely on their tutorials mainly.”