There are about four hundred students seated to the take the HSC exam, one of the national exams for 12th grades in the central hall on the bottom floor of the school. The hall, usually home to cultural events for students has been transformed into a room of intimidation: rows of wooden chairs and tables, and desks in intervals for proctors and board members to sit and observe late teenagers sweat their way through a live or die exam. None them look up when I enter the room to speak to one of the teachers, their faces showing the strains of studying for months being finally poured out.
The HSC result will determine the students’ ability to succeed in the sense that if they do not do well, their hopes of getting into a national university are slim to none. Getting entrance into the prestigious public institutions such as Dhaka University, Dhaka Medical College, or Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology will all be essentially determined by the HSC exam. Likewise, the fate of the school rests on its students’ scores as well. The more perfect scores, the better the school will be ranked among all. In a country there hierarchy is engrained in the everyday social construct, this becomes particularly important. Rajuk has been ranked at the top as an educational institution based on these results. When I tell someone from Bangladesh that I work at RUMS, they usually respond with raised eyes and by telling me that I work at the best schools in the country.
The exam culture of schools that follow the national curriculum consists of intense memorization, attention to detail, and unorthodox organization. Not only do they have to memorize information (often word for word), but they must be presented clearly and neatly. I have seen some of the best English handwritings at Rajuk, ever. When I write on the board in class I am sometimes embarrassed as my writing (which I have always considered to be pretty good) looks illegible compared to kids ten yours younger than me. In fact in some classes I have to warn before hand that my handwriting may not be clear (to which I get amused smirks and laughs).
RUMS students from all grade levels have also had exams over the last four weeks. These exams included midterms, papers, and lesson exams. I eagerly took about fifty of these English exams with me home to grade. My most important conclusion: I have a new appreciation for all the teachers I have ever had for what they had to go through. I finally understand why it took them so long to turn back midterms and finals. Grading takes a type of effort that I have decided that I do not enjoy- attention to detail, reading sometimes excruciatingly boring paragraphs, trying not cringe at grammar mistakes, and checking final scores, making sure there are no rooms for students to appeal decisions.
Further, there is an indirect grading deflation policy at RUMS- no one is allowed to have full marks. This unwritten policy can be observed in many Bangladeshi schools, especially the competitive selections. For example, in the essay section of the exam, while it says that it is out of ten points, the highest they can get is a seven (which is when it is exceptional). The student may or may not know this. Thus, getting a score in the range of 70s is considered to be good- a score that translates to a ‘C’ in most schools in the United States. You do not ever give full marks- an important rule with ethical bindings for me. So no matter how much these students study and write amazing answers to questions (which were several in this sample case), they will never be rewarded what they probably deserve.
It is hard to compare these systems with those in the West as the implications of results are so varied. Whereas in the United Stats many factors count towards college entrance, in Bangladesh the exam results are exclusive in that category. And yet Bangladeshi students from these national schools who pursue their undergraduates in the United States have an unusually high rate of success in their SATs. Usually, financial considerations are the reasons for declining entrance to American colleges rather than not getting an acceptance. Their SAT scores tend to make up for the lack of sufficient extra curricular activities, for example, which is still an up and coming component in Bangladeshi schools.