Across the country, as our young await their 10th, 11th, and 12th exam results, parents get anxious about a decision they made several years prior: choosing the board which will grant their children the certificates that will stay with them for life.

India is alone among countries in the developing world to offer as many as five board choices. The majority of students get their credentials from a State government agency (generally known as the pre-university board) that is authorised to implement higher secondary education within the State.

Next down, nearly a million students appear for the CBSE XII exams conducted by the ministry of human resource development. With nearly 15,500 affiliated schools, the CBSE programme has the widest footprint.

About 100,000 students appear for the ISC Class XII exams conducted by the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations — created from a hodge-podge group of educational associations, some dating to the days of the British Raj. In 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available, about 44,000 students took the Cambridge International A Level exams.

And then there is the international baccalaureate (IB) diploma, awarded by IBO, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Fewer than a hundred IB World schools operate in India resulting in no more than a few thousand certificate holders.

Too many choices

Choice is great when one goes shopping for a car as the ability to select from different options is a key building block of free market economies. But choice does not make sense when the needs of interoperability are paramount. Consider the chaos that would result if a litre of water meant 750 ml to some, 1,000 ml to others and 1,250 ml to still others.

This is precisely the dilemma degree colleges or employers are in when evaluating a person with a Class 12 diploma. How exactly can one compare a student who graduates with a PU certificate from the West Bengal with one who graduates with a Cambridge A Level certificate? Both are equivalent which means that both allow these candidates to apply to a degree college. But this is where the similarity ends.

Suppose both students scored 78 in maths. Most people would conclude that the Cambridge student is probably more proficient in the subject.

But there are no conversion standards so the evaluator has no way to correctly assess the students’ merit. He will, therefore, resort to subjective evaluations on what seemingly appears to be an objective score — a ridiculous outcome after all the effort that the students put in.

Other strategies

There are other strategic considerations in play. Parents who have decided their wards will pursue admission to the IITs tend to stick with the CBSE programme. Private cram schools around the country prepare students to master the IIT main exam which is conducted by the CBSE board.

If the IIT route fails, there is a backup plan.

Admission to State engineering colleges is based on the average of the 12th score with performance on the State’s Common Entrance Test weighting each on a 50-50 basis. High CBSE scores can help elevate the CET rank.

The ISC is believed to be tougher to score on, so an ISC student will lose out when the CET ranks are announced.

But an ISC, Cambridge or IB student probably stands a better chance of getting admissions to international schools because these programmes have built a reputation for offering a more well-rounded curriculum that is appealing to foreign colleges and universities.

The parental decision to enrol students into a particular curriculum can, therefore, have major consequences on their careers. And this choice often has to be made when children are still in class 8 or 9, an age when most children do not know enough to correct their parents.

The government should push through education reforms that let State boards continue offering their own curricula out of respect for federalism but incentivise them to convert to the central CBSE programme as a national standard.

The CBSE itself should be revamped to incorporate best practices from the ISC curriculum, and allow gifted and talented students to enrol in above-level classes so that they are academically challenged and correspondingly rewarded. The government should stop recognising ISC, Cambridge and IB degrees altogether.

The Irish mathematical physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin said that when you cannot measure something in numbers, your knowledge is meagre and unsatisfactory. It is time we did something about this mess.

The writer is the managing director of Rao Advisors LLC