Come spring, it might not be enough to memorize course material for board exams. Education officials now want students to actually think. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) have been holding meetings to change the high-stakes examinations for Xth and XIIth classes—taken by 15- and 17-year-olds—to be held in March next year.

Scorecard: A file photo of Class XII students waiting for the start of their Physics examination in New Delhi. CBSE says 20% of the ­(forthcoming) board exams will be on HOTS, which will test students on their analytical or “higher order thinking skills.

CBSE says about one-fifth of the exam will test students on their analytical or higher order thinking skills, popularly called HOTS by academics. NCERT suggests about one-third. Students and teachers, meanwhile, say they want to know soon what types of questions and changes to expect.

Though testing is not his job, Krishna Kumar, professor, child advocate, and head of NCERT, which has designed and implemented a new curriculum for schools in India, is now on a different mission: He wants 2008 to be the year of examination ­reforms.

“I am in the persuasion business," said Kumar, who drove a two-year effort to transform what students in more than 8,000 public and private schools nationwide will study between ages five and 17. His effort changed stodgy textbooks to ones full of colour and cartoons. Now, 14-year-olds learn about incidents at Guantanomo Bay and the post-Godhra massacre of Muslims in Gujarat by referring to their political science book.

In March, he wants at least one-third of the examination by the board to do more than ask students to regurgitate knowledge learned by rote from textbooks. To illustrate the changes he wants, Kumar’s agency has put-up sample tests on its website: a Class X examination to test Hindi language skills asks students to write on the problems faced while caught in a traffic jam or to describe a recent movie they have watched, with comments on how close the film was to real life. In another problem, students are asked to write the headlines they are likely to read in a newspaper or news items, which can appear on its business page.

Kumar’s push is being felt by CBSE. Its chairman Ashok Ganguly promises that the forthcoming tests will reflect changes. “20% of the board exams will be on HOTS," said Ganguly. Many agree that reforms in testing are overdue, and reflect an overall shift away from rote learning and testing toward encouraging students to question, discuss and analyse the world around them. Every year, stress from examinations leads to student suicides in India. Parents and schools are veering towards the more expensive but globally accepted International Baccalaureate, or IB curriculum, which tests students on application and analysis. India now ranks amongst the Top 10 countries in the world in terms of number of schools offering the IB diploma, ahead of China and Sweden. School principals such as Ian Bayly, who till recently headed the British School in Delhi, considers the IB one of the best tests. It even tests leadership skills, he says.

Kumar agrees. “We know that the amount of change (in exams) that the National Curriculum Framework requires will take time," he said. “If no change comes this year, it will encourage schools to go towards IB."

But the reforms also are leaving teachers and students, used to the rigid CBSE system, confused. Among students, a few months away from the tests which can decide the college they gain admission to, the fear of being tested on what they term “out-of-syllabus" material is rising. “We have heard that some questions will be on HOTS," said Gaurav Mitra of Ajmer, Rajasthan, who is preparing for his Class XII examination. “But our teachers don’t know what they are."

“This is the first time students will be faced with the new curriculum in the board exams. We want more clarity on what type of questions to expect, especially in economics and political science," said Nina Sehgal, principal of Delhi Public School in Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

CBSE says it will begin circulating sample tests amongst schools soon. Test-prep websites such as are pitching in with their own predictive tests. The site plans to give out these samples even as podcasts as the exams near. “We are building a community of students and teachers. The whole focus is towards exams," said Atul Kulshrestha, an entrepreneur who set up the website.