June 1975, I remember it well. In a frenzy of nervous anticipation, I bit my nails down to the skin, drove my family a little frantic. I couldn't decide whether I wanted the days to zoom by (so the tension would be over) or drag (so the moment of truth would remain far away). In the end, zoom or drag, it was worth the wait, or almost. When my school-leaving exam results were finally declared, I hadn't done quite as well as I would have liked, but I still managed a Government of India merit award for my performance. For finishing in the top 500, nationwide, I got the tidy sum of Rs 100.

It astonishes me to know that had I done that exam today, my performance would not have put me in the top 5000, let alone the top 500. I came home with a shade below 80 per cent. Then, it was enough to get me into a respected engineering college. Today, 80 per cent would be less than mediocre. Today, I'd be hard pressed to get into any engineering college, any college at all.

That's one of two great changes since I left school: that marks in the school-leaving exams have inflated to the limit. How colleges distinguish between a 99.5 per center and a 99 per center remains a constant puzzle to me, and I worry about what that exercise will be like when my son gets to leaving school. Luckily, that's still ten years away. (Should the years zoom by or drag?)

But if that change is hard enough to comprehend, there's another that's possibly worse. Or more far-reaching, anyway. That's the way that schools matter very little today. Because the real preparation for these exams happens in coaching classes, a phenomenon that was virtually nonexistent in my time.

Farzana Cooper

A teenager I met recently told me how he is getting ready for his 12th standard exam (HSC) next March. He goes to college -- in Bombay, most students actually do their final two years of school, the 11th and 12th, in what's called "junior college" -- daily, but spends his time there in the cafeteria. Neither he nor any of his friends attend any classes. In the afternoons, he has tuitions. Those go on till 8, covering every subject in his curriculum. This regimen wends its martial way through the year, vacation or no vacation, until exam time. (Not just that; this is essentially the regimen from the 8th standard on, because the 10th standard exam is also a big one -- in Bombay, it is the school-leaving exam).

For this drudgery, his father has shelled out Rs 50,000; and for tuitions like these, that's only in the middle of the scale.

Now even in these days of liberalisation and rising incomes, 50,000 rupees is not a small sum that everybody can afford. The people who run classes know this well. Chate's Classes, the splashiest and loudest -- judging by their dense full-page ads -- of the coaching institutes in Bombay, makes few bones about exactly whom they aim their efforts at. One of their ads is titled "Dear Elite Mumbaian", and has this helpful comment about their prices: "Only the affluent few will find [our] offer attractive and acceptable."

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. If Dear Elite Mumbaian wants to send young Kanakadurga along to classes, paying tens of thousands of rupees, good luck to her all round. And even if only the elite can afford them, the elite still numbers enough Mumbaians that classes are hugely profitable enterprises -- again, judging by Chate's ads. Which is one of those perplexing things about India.

But let's dig a little more. There's a reason that teenager I mentioned does not attend classes in his college: it's a waste of his time. (Then again, so is going to the cafeteria, but let's not nitpick here). His teachers are, he tells me, studiously indifferent to their jobs. The reason? They are all otherwise, more lucratively, employed: in coaching classes. They make it known to the students that if they want to "learn" anything, "have any chance in the exams", they would do well to join those classes. (Whether there's any correlation between "learning" and "having a chance in the exams" remains unclear to me). The classes are where the real teaching will be done, problems solved, notes handed out.

And in college? Well, there are tasty samosas in the cafeteria, at any rate.

So young Kanakadurga, you understand, is left with little choice. If she sticks solely to attending her 11th and 12th standard classes, she will not learn what she needs for the exam. To have any hope of piling up the near-100 per cent scores which will be her ticket to senior college admission, she will have to sign up with Chate's, or someone else's, Classes. Her family will have to pay those tens of thousands of rupees.

And what if, like so many families in India even today, hers cannot afford them? Simple: she has to stick with college. Given her teachers' tutelary preoccupations, she will indeed not learn what she needs for the exam -- not from them, at least. Her hopes for high scores, for college admissions, for a step up in the world, must necessarily be scaled down to nil. Voila -- we have here one more way the poor pay for being poor.

We have a system that blithely takes away these kids' leisure time, and this is a "Salient Feature"?
 •  Kerala revises grading
Yet what are the elite really paying for? I mentioned drudgery earlier for a reason. Chate's ads list the "Salient Features" of their classes. One such Feature: "untiring toil on the part of both, students and teachers."

"Untiring toil"? For years, these children spend their evenings on the "untiring toil" of tuitions, trying to learn what their teachers should have been teaching them in junior college but don't, and this is a virtue? A "Feature"? We have a system that blithely takes away these kids' leisure time, and this is a "Salient Feature"? What do we want to turn out anyway, people or robots?

All this, and we've come full circle here, to push marks as close to 100 per cent as possible. Which is why such performances are getting ever more common, to the point that they are meaningless.

Take Chate's ads once more. To go with those Salient Features, they often carry a list of prizes Chate's will give students who do well in the exams. As you will see, the amounts involved are themselves an indication of the money in the coaching class business, but that's not the point I want to make here.

So for example, if Kanakadurga stands first in the "Divisional General Merit List" in the 12th, she will get Rs 101,000; second or third, Rs 75,000. There are other prizes as well. If in the 12th, Kanakadurga gets 100 per cent in the "PCB or PCM group" (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics), she gets Rs 50,000; if a measly 99 per cent, that goes down to a measly Rs 10,000.

In the 10th, neither 99 nor 100 in PCB/M merits a prize.

Think this through. Chate's thinks so many students will get 99 per cent and 100 per cent PCB/M scores in the 10th, they can't offer prizes for those. This need not make Kanakadurga despair, for there are other 10th standard exam achievements that will fetch her Chate prizes. One: being a "subject topper", meaning the student who tops the list of scores in any one subject. (Including, naturally, PCB or M). This will net Kanakadurga Rs 10,000.

That Chate has a prize for this, but not for scoring 100 per cent in PCB/M group, tells us that being a "subject topper" is a rarer, higher achievement than scoring 100 per cent in PCB/M. This is because many students might score 100 per cent in those subjects -- that's the fallout of grade inflation. But only one, in each subject, is actually on "top" of the list -- whether she is chosen to be there at random or alphabetically or by roll number or something else. And that one gets the 10K prize.

So Kanakadurga could get 100 per cent in each of PCB and still not get her prizes, because she is not a "subject topper." This is where grade inflation has brought us, to the point where we have to distinguish somehow between kids who have all scored the maximum possible.

I'm still trying to comprehend this puzzle. Meanwhile, in a banner across the bottom of Chate's ad is their motto: "Correct guidance, well planned and consistent hard work lead to a bright future!"

Indeed. Only, there was a time when those things happened in schools too.