Students' Grades - To Die For?

An unidentified schoolgirl comforts Aditi, right, as she weeps because she scored 84 percent marks, but had expected more in her 10th grade examinations in Jammu, India, May 24, 2003
As the summer heat and monsoon rains set in each year, Indian newspapers run colorful front-page pictures of joyous high school seniors cheering over their final exam results.

But turn the page and the black-and-white reality hits home, from the lineup of brief stories on anguished students who have killed themselves.

After grades were released in late May, even seniors who scored a respectable 80 percent, or a B average, could be seen crying and walking forlornly from campuses.

India is obsessed with the numbers, and some teenagers are so wracked by anxiety that they become ill, or worse.

The day before exam results were released, a New Delhi girl named Sakshi hanged herself with a scarf, leaving a note saying she was certain she had failed. Chetna, a girl in another neighborhood, swallowed insecticide, but her parents got her to the hospital in time.

Younger students aren't immune. In the southern state of Kerala, which has India's highest literacy rate but also its worst suicide rate, at least nine students killed themselves on May 16, the day 10th grade exam results were released.

"The inhumane stress put on children by the parents and teachers is the cause of this social evil — suicide," state Education Minister Nalakathu Soopy told The Associated Press.

Tenth grade exams are crucial, as good results can get a student into a better high school for the final two years. Twelfth grade exams determine who qualifies for one of India's 12,600 colleges and 214 universities.

Thousands of students are believed to commit suicide over exams each year, but figures are sketchy, as some cases are not reported as exam-related. A study by The Week magazine last October estimated about 4,000 students take their lives each year.

Many of those setting themselves on fire or hanging themselves from their bedroom ceiling fans are girls, although as a group they generally score better than boys.

A growing number of Indian girls are eager to break out of centuries of tradition that put wives in servitude to husbands and mothers-in-law. They are putting off marriage until they have made something of themselves, and for many the only way out is college.

"My entire life will depend on how well I do this year," said Koshika Anand, a 16-year-old girl who is beginning 12th grade later this month. "Girls don't get a second chance."

During their summer break, Koshika and a dozen other 11th graders are taking cram courses in math and science at Sachdeva Tutorial.

Koshika, dressed in trendy blue jeans and a T-shirt, said she hopes to become a surgeon.

"Marriage and dowry, that's for others," she said. "First I have to establish myself as Koshika, not by my father's name, not by my husband's name."

A male classmate, 15-year-old Salil Choudhary, rolled his eyes and said girls have it easy.

"She can just get married, but the pressure is on us to provide for her and our own family," said Salil, who would like to be a model or athlete but is being pushed by his parents toward engineering.

"Engineering is very important for our nation," he said, though without much conviction.

India, which is the world's most populous democracy, has a constitution that calls for equal education for gender and social class. But there are few good schools in a developing nation of more than 1 billion people.

"You are looking at a system that fails a lot of people," said Krishna Kumar, a professor of education at Delhi University. "And these people are from those sections of society which have poor access to the few opportunities that do exist."

Kumar said students from schools that lack basic amenities, where teachers are underpaid and uninspired, where there are few books and no computers, shouldn't have to compete with upper-class kids who have it all.

"The sharp inequality between schools is a very big impediment," he said.

The Ministry of Education said roughly 7 million students took the 12th grade exams in March.

Of the 360,000 who took the exam given by the Central Board of Secondary Education, which oversees 6,800 of the best urban schools, about 70 percent passed. A student passes with a 35 percent grade, but only those who score better than 75 percent will get into good universities and the major of their choice.

Ashok Ganguly, chairman of the Central Board of Secondary Education, concedes the system needs to reduce pressures on young people.

Beginning this school year, schools under his board are adding life skills courses for grades six through 12, emphasizing what Ganguly calls the "3 R's": relaxation, regulation, respiration.

He also wants to implement a letter-grade system. That way, a father will have no need to admonish a son for getting 96 percent on his exam, when a cousin has a 98, because both boys will be A students.

Ganguly notes his board is just one among three national school boards and 37 state boards that supervise a combined 120,000 schools. Soopy, education minister in Kerala, said that state would implement a grade system by 2005, but the idea has been slow to be adopted widely because the boards are competitive and suspicious of one another.

Dr. Elizabeth Vadakekara, director of Thrani, a crisis prevention center in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, said the center received 3,168 calls from students and parents during the week that test results came out. She said most callers were students who passed, but were contemplating suicide because they didn't meet parents' expectations.

"Children undergo terrible mental stress and agony when parents covertly express displeasure or anger over their poor performance," said Vadakekara.

Kumar, however, said parents are only responding to an elitist system that weeds out millions of children each year. He noted that only 7 percent of India's children even make it to 12th grade and a chance at college.

"The system is dependent on failing large numbers of children," he said.