A tale of two brothers: Inseparable at birth, separated by assessments

There were once two brothers, let’s call them Steve and Harry. They were born into a middle-class Indian family in 1989, separated by 5 minutes. It was a different world back then, exciting times. H.W. had just become President, Exxon Valdez was about to devastate the North Pacific and Alaskan Coastline with an oil spill, and the Berlin Wall was going to come crashing down later in the year, lifting the iron curtain over half of the world. When the brothers were 2 years old, the heavily regulated Indian economy was liberated from the socialist clutches of the Government, bringing unprecedented economic growth to the country. Indian middle-class was about to witness a radical change in the standards of living and the recent events had ensured that the brothers would receive the best possible education and a world of opportunity. All was well.

Steve and Harry went to the same schools, were in the same classes, had the same group of friends and were, in other words, inseparable. By middle school, it is clear that Steve is “better” than Harry, as he is always top of the class and has a near-photographic memory, perfect for memorizing everything and dumping it in the exams. Harry, on the other hand, is barely scraping by in school as he is “stubborn and doesn’t want to study”. Steve gets pampered and has access to everything, while Harry suffers in silence. No one knows that Harry has a genius for pattern recognition and numbers speak to him. He can see trends and relationships where others can’t, but he has nothing to show for it, except for his above-average math scores. Recognizing what Harry is good at would be asking too much from assessments which assign arbitrary numbers to students based on how well they can memorize.

It is April of 2005. The brothers are now 16 and in the 10th grade. This year is extremely important and could “make or break their careers”, people around them can’t seem to stop reminding them. At the end of the school year, they will take the “Board Exams”, which are administered to millions of students by the central education board. The purpose of this is to sort the students based on their scores in at least five 3-hour exams and limit their options for the last two years of schooling based on it. The top students can pick from any of the 3 streams – science, commerce, and humanities. Who are we kidding, this is India and if you make the mistake of being good at taking exams, you have to pick science, or your parents will pick it for you. Undergraduate degree eligibility will be limited based on this hierarchical system where students who picked science in high school can pursue any degree, while the peasants in humanities are limited to humanities degrees.

It is May of 2006. Steve and Harry, along with hundreds of thousands of others, await the results of the board exams. Steve, as expected aced the exams achieving 95%, while Harry barely scraped by with 62%. Their parents are elated for how well Steve did, and are worried about what Harry will do in life.

It is June of 2006. There is sort of mad rush to sign up for limited spots in science for 11th grade in most schools. The brothers’ parents are able to get Steve admitted to a top private school to study science and eventually pursue engineering. They have high expectations from Steve. But Steve doesn’t want to study science. He has a passion for English literature. He devours works of the likes of Hemingway, Eliot, Shaw, and Yeats. But he did so well in the board exams. How can his parents let him make the mistake of not picking science? Fights and arguments ensue. The parents win. Steve enrolls to study science. Harry has no choice but to study humanities. No reputable school will allow him to study science or commerce. But he wants to study math. He got a perfect score in math in the board exams. The schools don’t care. Their policy is to look at the percentage score and not individual subjects. Harry’s parents try and finally give up. Harry enrolls to study humanities. The brothers are separated for the first time in 10 years. They go to different schools, take different classes, have different friends. Both brothers are miserable, and the assessments have claimed two more victims.

It is August of 2008. Steve is about to join a private university to study computer engineering. He “wasted” too much time in the last two years reading novels and hasn’t done as well as his parents hoped. He can’t get into the top public universities in India, so an expensive private university is the only option. Harry is getting ready to move to the UK. He has an uncle who wants him to come and work in his restaurant and is willing to help him go to college in London. Harry is determined to find a way to study math. The past two years have been tough, but there is hope now that the brothers are moving out.

It is 2017. A lot has happened in the past 9 years. Harry is now running his uncle’s restaurant in West London, as uncle is ill and can no longer do it on his own. He enrolled in college but had to drop out as it was too expensive and he was in too much debt. He is doing a decent job managing the restaurant and makes enough to lead a mediocre life. His passion for math was long forgotten. Steve is furiously typing his way through a complex piece of python code. He is on a deadline and needs to deliver this module to his client in the US in a few hours. It is the middle of the night, he is in a dimly lit office, in a generic IT company in India. He hates his job, but it pays the bills. His passion for literature was long forgotten. One brother adds to the statistics of Indians who left the country in search of better lives, and the other adds to the statistics of Indians stuck in IT jobs with minimal growth.

There were once two brothers, inseparable at birth, separated by 5,000 miles. What if they were born in a different time, in a different place? What if the assessments were better suited to figure out what they were good at? What if someone had looked beyond their scores and encouraged them? What if there were no scores at all? What if….

Alright, if you are still reading, I will let you in on a secret: I made this story up. I used it as a means to channel my frustration and anger at the education system in India. The sad part is, India has 1.3 billion people and there probably are thousands of Steves and Harrys out there.