How state-level school boards can promote educational equity

The existence of separate boards for secondary and higher secondary levels in eight states creates disparities in student performance within the same state.
The existence of separate boards for secondary and higher secondary levels in eight states creates disparities in student performance within the same state.


  • State-level curriculums should align with the National Curriculum Framework while incorporating state-specific elements, ensuring that all students receive a robust educational foundation that can satisfy national standards and suit local contexts.

Mission drift, a phenomenon wherein an organization starts focusing on activities that do not align with its foundational mission, has severe consequences for organizations. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins highlights how companies can falter by straying from their core values and missions, a concept linked to Aristotle’s idea of “telos," or an entity’s ultimate purpose. Aristotle believed that losing sight of this purpose leads to dysfunction and unrealized potential, mirroring the effects of mission drift seen in modern organizations.

This issue is notably problematic within public sector institutions such as state-level school boards in India. Established initially to set educational standards, develop curricula and oversee school administration, these boards have increasingly focused on conducting examinations. Such a narrow focus can overshadow broader educational goals like encouraging critical thinking, creativity and holistic development, relegating the original mission of enhancing the educational experience to a secondary role.

Ironically, this examination-centric approach dates back to colonial times, stemming from the Sadler Commission report of 1919, which advocated a board of secondary and intermediate education to manage and conduct examinations. While the Commission also emphasized the need to oversee educational quality, over the years, mission drift has led many state boards to primarily function as exam holders in practice, moving away from their foundational educational objectives. This drift impacts the overall quality of education, reducing its scope to standardized testing.

There used to be 50 boards in the country, including the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in 2012. This has now increased to 60. New additions include the Kerala Board of Vocational Higher Secondary, Sanskrit boards in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Uttarakhand and Delhi, Aligarh Muslim University Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education, Uttar Pradesh (UP) Dayalbagh Education Institute, Open Board for Punjab and Hyderabad and Veda Board Ujjain. While the diversity of educational boards across India may seem beneficial, celebrating a variety of approaches and specializations, it unfortunately poses major challenges.

First, as these boards lack a uniform timeline and syllabus, students do not get a level playing field, which poses significant barriers at the national level. Students from different boards find themselves at varying stages of preparedness, leading to stark disparities in the average learning outcomes achieved in similar grades.

Second, the existence of separate boards for secondary and higher secondary levels in eight states creates disparities in student performance within the same state. Each board has its own focus and priorities, which directly influence the teaching methodologies and experiences offered in their schools. This divergence affects educational consistency and the quality of education that students receive, leading to varied academic outcomes within the same state.

Third, significant variability in curriculum standards and educational approaches across different boards makes it challenging for students to move seamlessly between them. Such barriers impede educational progression, force students to repeat or miss critical coursework, and ultimately compromise their academic and career opportunities.

Fourth, significant disparities exist in pass rates across various boards: For secondary education, Assam has a low of 59%, while Kerala achieves 100%. Other states like Manipur, Karnataka, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh (AP), Telangana, and Odisha range from 76% to 98%. In higher secondary education, the variation continues, with Assam at 85%, while states like Manipur, Karnataka, West Bengal and Kerala show rates of 75% to 95%. Punjab, Tripura and Maharashtra have higher pass rates of up to 98%, illustrating regional differences in outcomes that highlight systemic inequities in need of resolution for nationwide educational equity.

Fifth, diverse curriculums and standards lead to a competitive imbalance at national-level examinations. India does not have a national-level school exit exam. If one looks at the proportion of students who appeared to pass national-level exams such as the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) 2023, this imbalance is starkly visible. 69.3% of all CBSE students who appeared for NEET passed. The national average is 54.9%. Only CBSE and Council for Indian School Certificate Examination (CISCE) students and those of the Gujarat, AP and Telangana boards are above the national average. The value is significantly lower for boards such as MP (39.4%), Tripura (36.3%), UP (35.7%), Uttarakhand (35.6%) and Chhattisgarh (34.6%). This systemic discrepancy effectively penalizes students from state boards, not based on merit or aptitude, but because of the curriculum they are taught, which is out of step with the national benchmark. This is relevant in the context of educational equity. Diverse standards across boards create an uneven playing field.

Sixth, the pressure from these competitive exams, which often determine the trajectory of a student’s academic and professional future, makes many turn to supplementary education to bridge gaps left by their formal schooling. This is worsened by the varying quality of educational resources across boards and an urban-rural divide in educational infrastructure, pushing even more students towards shadow education, especially those who are studying under state boards.

To effectively address these disparities, state boards need to prioritize updating their curriculums, enhancing teacher training and focusing on capacity building to improve the quality of education in their affiliated schools.

Rather than standardizing the syllabus across all boards nationally, a feasible approach would involve establishing a consensus on foundational standards. The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) developed under the aegis of the National Education Policy, 2020, provides an excellent starting point. State-level curriculums should align with the NCF while incorporating state- specific elements, ensuring that all students receive a robust educational foundation that satisfies national standards and suits local contexts. This strategy would bridge the gaps in educational outcomes and foster a more cohesive educational system.

These are the authors’ personal views.

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