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India school-leaving exam: The controversy that cost 23 lives

The suicides have put India’s competitive exams in the spotlight amid allegations of errors in marking.

At least 23 teenagers in the southern Indian state of Telangana have killed themselves since their school-leaving exam results were announced in April. BBC Telugu’s Deepthi Bathini explains why the results have become controversial.

Thota Vennela enjoyed cooking, watching comedy shows and eating street food.

Her older brother, Venkatesh, 19, had recently taught her to ride his motorbike. “I was so happy that she could ride it like a professional biker. But sometimes I would follow her without her knowing to make sure that she was safe,” he says. The siblings fought over the bike and played pranks on each other, but they were close.

Venkatesh struggles to hold back tears as he pulls out his wallet to show his sister’s photograph. On 18 April – the day she found out that she had failed her 12th class (school leaving) exams – Vennela consumed poison. She died hours later in a hospital.

“She kept repeating, how could I fail?” recalls her mother, Sunitha. “We consoled her and told her it was fine and she could apply for re-evaluation or take the exams again. But even at the hospital she kept saying, ‘I should have passed’.”

Vennela was one of more than 320,000 students in Telangana who failed their school-leaving exams. All of them were enrolled in schools that teach a syllabus set by the state education board. (Some Indian schools also teach syllabuses set by a national education board.)

Higher education in India is fiercely competitive. And school-leaving exams are crucial for securing a spot in good universities – they are seen as a ticket to a well-paying job and a bright future. Top universities also conduct independent admission tests, but students who perform well in those can still lose their seat if they fail their school-leaving exams.

In the days following the announcement of the exam results, shocked students and parents protested, alleging there had been errors in marking and demanded the exams be marked again.

“My son scored full marks in maths, physics and chemistry in his 11th class exams. But this year the results show that he scored one mark in maths and zero in physics. How is that possible?” says Venugopal Reddy.

“He had been studying for other competitive tests. But after the results, he is dejected. He has stopped studying and eating, and refuses to leave the house. I am worried about his mental health,” he adds.

As protests intensified, suicides by students who had failed the exams were reported from across the state.

A child rights group petitioned the state high court, which ordered the board to re-mark the answers of all those who had failed. The new results were announced on 27 May – the scores of 1,137 of the students who had failed were revised, and they were declared successful in the exams. One student who had initially scored zero marks in a subject, ended up scoring 99 when her answers were re-marked…[ ]

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