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In India, stressed-out students face exams that could determine their future

In India, stressed-out students face exams that could determine their future

For more than 15 million Indian teenagers, the end of February means one thing: spending nearly every waking hour cramming for exams that will determine their academic future and, possibly, the course of their life.
Akriti Khanna's day starts with a few hours of memorizing facts, figures, dates and places. Then come practice tests and private tutoring. The day ends the way it began _ with more memorizing.
"I'm totally freaked out," the petite 17-year-old girl said, rubbing her sleep-deprived eyes while sitting on a couch at home. "I haven't been as organized about my studies as I could have been. I can't afford to screw this up."
The lead-up to India's board exams, which start Saturday, is a time when phones ring relentlessly at crisis centers and newspapers are full of advice to remain calm. In a country as focused on achievement and as exam-obsessed as India, some of the most fragile students are driven to suicide.
For 10th graders, the tests determine whether they can move onto 11th grade. For 12th graders, doing well means getting into one of India's elite universities _ and getting a shot at the prestigious and increasingly well-paid careers that often come with such a degree.
Critics say the educational system's focus on the exams sucks the pleasure out of learning and handicaps students by not teaching them to think for themselves.
At best, the system trains exam takers, said Abdul Mabood, the director of Snehi, a mental health organization that runs a phone-in center for stressed-out students. At worst, some students take their lives.
"The students who commit suicide are already so low and distressed that they're not inclined to call help centers like ours," he said.
The dire state of most of India's public universities, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described last year as being "in a state of disrepair," only adds to the pressure, leaving students scrambling for a place at one of the handful of elite institutions.
Those who do poorly can go to second-tier universities, whose graduates have fewer opportunities, or to a foreign school, an option that's too costly for many Indian families.
"You have to perform well," said 15-year-old Akshit Mishra. "I feel panicky when I look at the calendar and see how little time I have left."
For the past year, Akshit has been studying eight to 10 hours a day on top of his six hours at school. His mother, Ira, has disconnected the Internet on their home computer to cut down on his distractions. She even took February off from her job as a librarian to watch over Akshit and his 17-year-old brother as they prepare for the exams.
"The competition is very tough, and we just want our children to be able to cope with it," she said.
Students can retake the exams if they fail. But with so much societal and parental pressure, taking a year off is an Indian teenager's nightmare.
"It's not even something we can think about. It's not an option at all," Khanna said.
In the months leading up to the exams, the tests loom everywhere.
The Hindustan Times, a leading English language daily, runs a series called "Cracking the Boards." Television programs have psychiatrists and psychologists take questions and calm fears. In New Delhi, the capital, radio stations broadcast a message from the city's top elected official urging students to remain calm.
Students complain about insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks. For some, the pressure is intolerable. Indian newspapers reported separate cases this week of 18-year-old girls hanging themselves. Police were quoted saying exam stress likely prompted both suicides.
At Snehi's help center, counselors field about 3,000 calls in the month before the exams.
One recent caller, a 15-year-old who spoke in a voice breathless with anxiety, said she couldn't study.
"I feel sleepy or I get a headache. I just can't concentrate. I can't even finish a single chapter," she told the counselor. "I just want to talk to someone."
The counselor, Brijinder Grewal, tried to calm the teenager. "It's OK to sit down and listen to some music or talk to a friend," she said.
But, ultimately, the exams must be taken: "Do it for 20 or 30 minutes just to get refreshed," Grewal continued. "Then you can get back to your books."


Updated : 2021-06-25 15:21 GMT+08:00