In Sri Lanka entrance to the university is determined by a single nationwide examination that is held at the end of the 12th grade. Students choose a set of subjects depending on their prospective field of study. I, for example, took physics, chemistry, pure and applied mathematics as my four subjects. Since the number of spaces at universities is highly limited, there is intense pressure to study to get in and this leads to a proliferation of things like private tutoring and commercial tutoring centers.
This pressure is greater in some places than others and in some areas students wake up before dawn, go to a tutoring center for classes, then go to school, then return home to eat, and then go for evening classes. It was ridiculous then and I don’t know how bad it is now. When I was in Sri Lanka, I could have earned a lot more money by quitting my faculty job and opening up a physics tutoring center.
I went to school in a town and attended a school where the pressure was not that intense and I do not recall any of my friends going to tutoring centers and indeed we did not feel the need to. When my friend and I entered university despite our comparatively cavalier attitude, we were surprised to find that many of the other students already knew each other even though they had gone to different schools. We were shocked to discover that this was because they had all had attended the same tutoring centers for years, some held in halls that seated hundreds of students.
Given the intense focus on these 12th grade exams, one can imagine the scope there is for corruption and the security measures that had to be put in place. To minimize the risk of fraud, each student was given an identification number and card to prevent ringers taking the exam. The exam papers had to be kept under strict security, and the grading was done in grading centers under close supervision.
The examination papers were set by college faculty and later when I was a faculty member, I was on the physics panel. There were about six of us and we had strict orders not to tell anyone that we were on the panel in order to prevent pressure being brought on us to reveal information, since even one point on an exam could mean the difference between entering the university or being left out. It was all cloak-and-dagger stuff. The meetings were held in secret and we took care to destroy all the notes of the meetings.
I suspect that India is similar and so it was with sadness but no surprise that I read of a major corruption scandal that has resulted in many suicides and even murders and the arrests of over 2,000 people, including politicians, academics, and doctors.
In countries like Sri Lanka and India, this pressure falls on everyone but especially on the less well-to-do, since getting into university is their main path out of poverty and there are fewer alternatives. But the US is not immune to this kind of academic pressure. Here there is less of a focus on cheating at the exams and more on the pressure that students, their families, and their schools in selected areas place to get into the most elite universities. This seems to be a problem that afflicts the wealthy more than the poor since it is among that group that there is the greatest competition to get into the most selective schools.
There was an article in the Atlantic that looked at the unusually high suicide rate in the wealthy Palo Alto school district, home to the Silicon Valley technocratic elite. Jeremy Lin, who played basketball for Harvard and now is in the NBA, went to school in that district and wrote a poignant coda to that article about how he too felt under such intense pressure to do well on tests that he had nightmares.
I worry about this. Irrespective of one’s wealth, childhood and adolescence are precious times when learning should be as much a pleasurable activity as sports and other pastimes. They should not be times where the joy is sucked out of life because of the perceived need to study all the time and feel that one’s whole life hangs in the balance because of one exam.