Thursday, 22 September 2011

Common Entrance Test for Engineering

The recent move by IITs to change the mode of selecting students is quite interesting.  The intention of considering the 12th marks percentage is to ensure that students learn the subjects in a holistic manner rather than become experts in cracking  JEE.  There are a number of assumptions in the proposal. 
The first underlying assumption is that in general schools across India are imparting uniform quality of education to students.  We know in practice that the quality of the schools is extremely uneven and varies widely depending upon factors such as the school board, urban & rural setting, commitment of school management, access to resources, availability of lab facilities, extent of government subsidy and extent of political interference in education. In this kind of environment, only a fortunate few have access to quality school education that fosters to promoting all round development of students including academic excellence. In fact, for many students joining good graduate institutions is the start of real all round personality development including academic excellence.  By putting an entry barrier by basing the admission upon school marks, students who have had the fortune of being in a nurturing environment stand a far brighter change than other unfortunate students.    
The second underlying assumption is that the marks secured by students in board exams in fact differentiate their level of understanding of the subject.  The unfortunate truth is that board papers are predictable and students cram to secure high marks. It is common knowledge that students are advised to write the model answers as prescribed by coaching classes and guide books.  In fact, the boards give model answers to paper evaluators and marks secured by students is linked to how close the actual answers are to the prescribed model answers.  Since the goal of the paper setters is to measure the common minimum knowledge of students, the higher end capacity of students is not tested by the papers. In the absence of questions that can differentiate between students based upon testing of deeper understanding of subjects, other criteria are used to differentiate amongst good students.  These include deducting marks for bad handwriting, bad presentation, not stating assumptions and jumping steps in maths problems.  Hence beyond a point, it is difficult to differentiate based on marks.  In this scenario, it is more appropriate to set realistic minimum cutoff marks for each board rather than use the marks as a criterion for differentiating students at a micro level.
 The third assumption is that the board exams process is squeaky clean. Every few years we hear of leaked papers, mass copying, careless correction and other mistakes. The problem is that nobody can vouch for the integrity of board exams.
The fourth assumption is that the coaching classes are ipso facto detrimental to academic excellence. In fact considering the quality of education in many pockets of India, coaching classes provide necessary rigor for academic excellence. It is true that there are many valid deficiencies including accessibility of coaching classes. But at least students have an avenue to push the boundaries of problem solving and structured thinking. Ultimately, students gain in terms of knowledge, whether they crack JEE or other prestigious exams.
It is well appreciated that India has a long way to go before the above issues are tacked head on and access to quality school education becomes a universal reality.  In the prevailing circumstances, tying the fate of students directly and intimately to marks secured in board exams is just not fair to students especially from disadvantaged academic backgrounds.     
The second reform proposed is to have a common entrance exam for all students. Here again the objective is laudable, but implementation difficulties need to be factored in.
Any entrance exam should be able to differentiate the students into three distinct baskets. The first basket is students who have the potential to be thought leaders. The second category is students who have potential to be good in execution and last category is students who do not hold promise.  
An understanding of how the Americans have cracked this problem is illustrative. The American GMAT and GRE tests are Computer Adaptive Tests. In short, initially answers are sought for easy questions. Gradually, the questions get tougher until the student begins to falter.  The marks are scored based upon both the correctness of the answer and the extent of toughness of the questions. This way, the GRE & GMAT scores are reflective of both the knowledge of the subject as well as the ability to find solution to complex problems.   
The current Indian system of having multiple entrance exams is an ingenious solution to the question of differentiating students into various categories. While some entrance exams test basically the ability of students to be good in execution, others like JEE test students ability to be thought leaders. Unless India can come up with a suitable test mechanism that can test like GMAT or GRE, we stand the risk of falling between two stools, that is failing to identify the very best for IITs and other premier institutions and identifying good students for second tier institutions.
While being open to change and improvement is a sign of wisdom, one has to be wary of the pitfalls and ensure that the proposed solution to the pitfalls of multiple entrance exams is not worse than the present system with all its warts.