A math problem

Sukrita Baruah
Special Mathematics class being given to the students of class 10, to improve the overall result in the Delhi Government school. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

“I just couldn’t wrap my head around polynomials. There’s x and y and z... there’s x on both sides of the equation... there is division and multiplication. It didn’t make any sense to me,” said 17-year-old Hemant, half embarrassed and half exasperated.

“For me it was all that sin, tan, cos, theta mumbo jumbo,” piped in his friend Shivam, with other boys around him nodding in agreement.
Both boys were among 47,231 students of Delhi government schools who were unable to clear the CBSE class X board examinations conducted in March this year. Like over half of these students, they had failed in only one subject — Mathematics.

Low pass percentage in CBSE class X examinations has been a pattern in Delhi government schools, and the children’s struggle with maths has been the biggest cause. After this year’s examination, around 350 schools had been identified where less than 55% of students had passed in maths in class X. These schools — and the government machinery behind them — are now working on a single mission: To increase the number of students passing in maths in the 2020 exam.

For a government which forefronts education as its most major field of interventions and initiatives, the low pass percentages remain a glaring gap in an otherwise favourable public image of work done in its schools.

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The quest to conquer mathematics began soon after results were declared in May, and analyses of the results by education department officials threw up some clear trends.

Low pass percentage in CBSE class X examinations has been a pattern in Delhi government schools, and the children’s struggle with maths has been the biggest cause. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

“Looking through the data we had collected, we found that students were performing well in other subjects. More than 96% had passed in English, Hindi and social science but maths emerged as a major issue. Only around 73% students had passed in it. Around 86% had passed in science,” said Shailendra Sharma, principal advisor to the Directorate of Education.

A still closer look at the results showed that it might not yet be too late to help some of these students save an academic year. For students who fail in either one or two subjects, the central board provides an opportunity to appear for compartment examinations in those particular subjects a few months later.

Of the students who had not passed the March exams from Delhi government schools, only 2,715 had failed outright while 44,516 had been placed in compartment. It was found that 24,502 of these students had failed only in maths, while 6,092 had failed only in science.
“Compartment exams are never really taken seriously by schools, students or the board because once they don’t pass, the students are considered to have failed and everyone moves on. But we thought that this was a gap that might be possible to fill through targeted focus on these two subjects, particularly maths,” said Sharma.

The quest to conquer mathematics began soon after results were declared in May, and analyses of the results by education department officials threw up some clear trends. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

And thus began a new exercise, in which the students placed in compartment were pushed to attend remedial classes in their schools during the summer vacation months of May and June, in preparation for the exams in July.

Every working day, for one-and-a-half months, these students went to school for one-and-a-half hours of classes and specialised attention from their teachers, who received teaching plans from the education department suggesting which topics within which chapters they could focus on in these two subjects.

As a result, 16,395 students — including Hemant and Shivam — managed to clear the compartment exams and move to class XI with their classmates. “I really pushed myself during that time because I didn’t want to waste a year. I told myself that it’s just a matter or one or two months and that once I would reach class XI, I would be free of maths forever,” said Hemant. After scoring 17 out of 80 in the March examination, he pulled through with 40 on 80 in the compartment and is now a student of humanities.

However, both boys have seen their closest friends move out of their classrooms after not being able to pass the compartment either — some have been re-admitted in class X, some have moved to open schooling, while some are preparing for the re-compartment next March from outside school.

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Carrying forward the lessons from the result analyses and experience with the compartment exam, government schools in general and the 350 schools identified as low performing in particular are gearing up for next year’s board exam from early on, by going the extra mile to push up the numbers of those passing in mathematics.

Every working day, for one-and-a-half months, these students went to school for one-and-a-half hours of classes and specialised attention from their teachers. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

“The director of education told us that we have to target a pass percentage of 90 in class X maths, so that is what we are focusing our energy on,” said Hansraj Meena, Head of School (HoS), Government Boys Senior Secondary School — one of the schools earmarked for weak performance in mathematics.

According to numbers crunched by the education department, around 30,000 students had appeared in the class X exam from these 350 schools, of whom 42% had passed in maths. In Meena’s school, only 32 of the 64 boys had passed in maths and the school’s overall pass percentage was 46.88%.

The struggle with mathematics becomes even clearer when it is put in perspective with the students’ performance elsewhere. All students had passed in English, Hindi and Sanskrit, one had failed in social science and nine had failed in science. In class XII, the pass percentage was 95.51%.

One of the biggest interventions lined up for these schools is focused revision on mathematics through private coaching, starting January. “We have thought of outsourcing some amount of maths teaching to external expert agencies, the way we have hired academies like British Council to help students with spoken English. This is to supplement what is taught by our teachers; it will help with clearing their concepts and practicing solving problems,” said Education Minister Manish Sisodia.

Earlier this year, the education department had sent out a requisition for 610 Trained Graduate Teacher (TGT) maths teachers to the DSSSB. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Currently the focus is on completing the syllabus in November so that students can enter revision mode as soon as possible. The government is working on sending out request for proposals (RFPs) to such agencies and will begin revision classes for a duration of two-three hours in the 15 days of winter break in January, continuing till the exams, with a 100-hour training package with the agencies for every school.

When The Indian Express asked why the government was turning to private parties for assistance, it was pointed to a long-standing problem of government schools — lack of teachers. “Not only is there a lack of teachers, even when we sent out notifications of vacancies for regular maths teachers, we received very few candidates. Even when we opened a portal looking for guest teachers, we got few applications,” said Sharma.

Earlier this year, the education department had sent out a requisition for 610 Trained Graduate Teacher (TGT) maths teachers to the DSSSB, which carries out recruitment through a competitive exam process. Only 115 candidates were shortlisted by the DSSSB, whose dossiers were sent to the department.

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This year, the CBSE has provided a new option which might create higher pass percentage numbers not just in Delhi but elsewhere too — to choose either basic or standard mathematics for the class X board examination. While all students will study the same syllabus, those who have opted for basic maths will be tested at an easier level with simpler questions. However, these students will not be able to choose maths as a subject in class XI and XII.

The Delhi government had sent out directives to counsel all schools stating that “students who are low performers in mathematics be counselled to opt for basic and not standard mathematics for CBSE class X board examination 2020”. The forms for examinations have been sent by schools to the board and a large number of students from these ‘low-performing schools’ have opted for basic maths for next year’s exam.

In the 2019 exam, out of 105 boys from the school who had appeared for the exam, 54 had failed. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

At Government Boys Senior Secondary School No. 3, Ambedkar Nagar, out of 118 class X candidates, only 15 have opted for standard maths while the rest opted for basic maths for the 2020 Class X boards.

In the 2019 exam, out of 105 boys from the school who had appeared for the exam, 54 had failed. “There was no coercion to opt for basic maths. The subject teacher identified weak students and counselled them by telling them what basic maths is and what options they have, and the final decision was left to students and their guardians,” said HoS Ram Dayal Khatik. At Meena’s school, too, 65 out 78 class X candidates for next year’s exam have opted for basic maths.

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The foot soldiers at the centre of this mission, the teachers, are making sure preparations are in full swing. One hour of remedial classes for students of class X before school hours commenced last week. Teachers have started helping students with maths sample papers provided by the board, and have also begun identifying topics to focus on.

At the school in Mehrauli, Meena has also appointed two resource persons — for maths and science — through the School Management Committee fund to take a couple of classes a week, and to observe classes of teachers and give them feedback on their teaching methods.

“We recently completed our mid-term exams and I’m analysing answer sheets to see which questions students did not attempt, and which they could not solve, to identify problem areas. From last week, I also started group study sessions, by forming groups of four-five and giving them a problem together so that they can brainstorm and learn from each other. We have also been given a list of easy chapters to focus on by the education department so that students can at least be assured of marks from those chapters. These are eight out of 15 chapters in the syllabus, including triangles, number systems and arithmetic progression. We have attended workshops in this as well,” said Nimendra Kumar, a TGT maths teacher at the Ambedkar Nagar school, while also acknowledging that these are limited goals.

“Currently, the directive is to push up the pass numbers. I, too, feel at a loss when despite my efforts as a teacher, a large number of my students fail. But right now, the eye is on the quantity of students while the quality of their engagement with maths can only be improved with stronger foundations at an earlier level,” he said.