Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Testing Fiasco calls for Radical Reform


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By Ajit Ranade

About twenty-five years ago, when Professor Suhas Sukhatme had just completed his term as Director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, his interview was published in a national daily. One of the questions that he was asked was what some of the highlights of his five-year tenure as Director were. He promptly gave a one-line answer, “Nobody called me to seek admission for their ward.” This answer has deep significance. Firstly, it shows that you can’t get admission by influencing the Director. Secondly nobody in the “system” even thinks of calling and using influence. Whether it is ministers, industrialists, politicians or elites, getting IIT admission by any other means apart from an entrance exam was unthinkable. This was simply an unwritten rule, or a norm, that had got implicitly codified over the years. And everyone abided by it. This norm endured because of the trust in the sanctity of the joint entrance exam, and because its integrity was inviolable. In fact, some other institutions like regional engineering colleges piggy backed their admission systems on the JEE ranking because of its integrity. Such a system lasted for about four decades when there were only five IIT’s, and the number of admissions as well as applicants was manageable, and the exam was administered totally end to end by the IIT’s themselves by rotation.
Successive generations of IIT faculty ensured that the sacred norm was sustained, and integrity was not compromised. But that did not last. The gap between supply and demand widened. The premium of getting into IIT zoomed sky high. The coaching class industry made out like bandits. This called for an increase in seat supply. Eventually the number of IIT’s proliferated, admissions increased, applicant numbers zoomed. And around 2013 there was intense policy discussion about introducing “one nation, one test” for all the major engineering and medical seats in the country. The motivation was to reduce the hassle for students and parents of running from pillar to post, appearing for multiple entrance exams. It was also to create a uniform standard across the country. There was grave concern about the non-level playing field created by the coaching class industry, and the huge profits that they were skimming.So finally, we did switch over to the “one test” model, with the JEE being split into two stages. A separate agency was set up called the National Testing Agency in 2017, and now the NTA is in charge of conducting the four big exams, namely National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) the gateway to medical seats, the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) for engineering seats, the University Grants Commission National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) and the Centralized University Entrance Test (CUET). The experience of the last few years has not been without hiccups for all these tests. These have led to great anxiety for students and parents. And not to forget the Kota suicides phenomenon related to the inhuman stress on those preparing for the competitive exams, whether JEE or NEET.
This year there is a major controversy about two of the big exams, NEET (undergraduate) and UGC-NET. The latter was scheduled for June 19 and abruptly cancelled with barely one day’s notice. About 0.9 million students across 317 cities were to appear for this exam. The NTA cancelled it because they were concerned about paper leaks. This cancellation came days after the still raging controversy on the NEET-UG whose results were announced on June 4, the same day as results of the national Lok Sabha elections. This exam was taken by 2.4 million students across 571 cities and 4750 centres. But the results seemed absurd. Marks which would have got a rank around 6800 last year, got a rank of 21000. Or marks ranked around 28000 now ranked beyond 80,000. Besides 67 students got a perfect score, with six of these in one same sequence, from the same centre. All this created a lot of disquiet. When scores were shared by parents and applicants on social media, another very unusual phenomenon was discovered, which had not been disclosed by NTA. That 1563 students had received grace marks for which no prior condition had been announced. Grace marks can be given to students with a disability for certain reasons, but in this case, they were given because questions papers reached very late.
By now everything has landed in the Supreme Court. The grace marks have been cancelled, and a retest ordered. But the question remains whether such a benefit should have been made available to all, and not a select few only. This seems unfair. And what about the suspicion of mass leaks, and compromising of NTA’s exam machinery? There seems to be a big cheating scam, and some arrests have been made in Bihar and Gujarat. The saga is not over, nor is the untold stress for students and parents.
This fiasco calls for a massive overhaul and reforms. Tests which use Optical Marks Recognition (OMR) require printing, transporting sealed packages and ensuring tamper proof packaging. Such a system is obsolete. Indeed, a prominent government owned testing agency in Maharashtra, migrated to a screen-based system almost fifteen years ago. With tools like AI, and live proctoring software, we don’t need to use OMR and all with the attendant risks. The software and AI basis allows dynamic and randomised sequencing, and even paper setters will not know the full exam until it is actually administered. These are all tech-based solutions, which are tried and tested and used even in many places of India. Secondly, we have to find ways to reduce the excessive premium on the one exam, and one national testing body. Either have multiple (at least two) competing standards (for tests), or allow a few private players. Let them compete on the basis of reputation and rigour and integrity. The third long term reform is to reduce the massive demand supply gap, by working on both sides of the equation. This also means unshackling the education sector, allowing greater freedom and autonomy to institutions of higher education, in deciding curricula, courses, faculty hiring and salaries, student fees and programs. Otherwise, millions of our youth are wasting the prime years of their youth with a psychological burden, and grueling study with repeated attempts, to crack exams, where the odds of winning are worse than a lottery.
(Dr. Ajit Ranade is a noted Pune-based economist) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (email: [email protected]


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