This Article is From Apr 30, 2019

It’s JEE Season – Why IITs Still Rely On It For Admission

It's admission season again. Some readers, in response to my previous blog that discussed the many problems with the IIT-JEE exam, asked why we don't simply follow American-style practices for entrance to the IITs. Many suggested the use of a SAT-type (Scholastic Aptitude Test - conducted by the College Board in America) test, and also to borrow other best practices like obtaining recommendation letters from school teachers, evaluating essays written by students, interviewing potential students and giving credit for liberal and performing arts as well as sports in the admissions process.

It would indeed be great if we could institute a multi-metric system of admission - something that captures the many aptitudes and talents of every student; but sadly, the large number of applicants and our peculiar cultural engagement with all sorts of "unfair means" renders this impossible at this point in time.

It is not feasible to organize interviews for tens of thousands of candidates nor find human resources to evaluate such a large numbers of essays and recommendation letters. While this is not impossible - and even if we could organize the logistics, a bigger problem in our context would be how to deal with the "jugaad" of dishonestly written recommendation letters, false or forged sports certificates, paid essays and plain bribery - the issue is that anything that has a discretionary element is likely to be corrupted by money or political connections as well as nepotism.

Then, using a SAT-type examination just by itself, even for a screening test, is insufficient and inappropriate. SAT is used in a multi-criteria space where it is just one of the items included in the application (others being extra-curricular activities, essays, interviews, etc). While a dominant lay perception of SAT is that it measures some kind of raw intelligence or an intelligence quotient (IQ), student performance is actually significantly skewed by the language and communication abilities; SAT uses cultural contexts that have been found to be discriminatory towards disadvantaged groups. For example, passages in reading and writing sections are full of descriptions that would be more familiar to persons from privileged backgrounds as compared to people from poorer socio-economic groups (e.g. blacks, Hispanics) and this affects their performance. In fact, many American schools prefer to look at subject-specific SATs like Mathematics, Physics, English, History; most of these are much like our competitive papers in various subjects. Therefore, bringing in a SAT-type test will come with similar problems. And, in any case, even if we did bring in such a test, it would be MCQ (Multiple Choice Questions) type and coaching institutes would really love it as yet another fertile business opportunity.

Then, of course, there is the classical proposal about not holding the JEE at all and simply using board examination marks for admission. The entrance examination mode was chosen for entry into the IITs right at the inception of these institutions (except for a short initial period) to provide a level playing field across all Class 12 boards. In 2012, we saw a policy change that assigned 40% weight to board marks for generating the JEE-Mains admissions merit list which in turn was the filter for appearing for JEE (Advanced) i.e. the test for admission into IIT. The idea was that this would make students more serious about school and less obsessed with coaching. This was implemented in the face of great resistance from all quarters and despite controversies about "normalization" of marks across boards (to make them comparable). Boards can be so different from each other in many respects such as syllabus depth and breadth, teaching style, assessment methods, lowest, highest and average scores, and so on. Some examinations focus on descriptive questions, others on numerical problems and yet others on formulae derivation. All these differences make comparison of marks across boards meaningless. Should we be surprised that very little has been done to make board syllabi and examinations more sensible? In 2012, I had suggested that, "As for using the board examination marks to admit students, it may be prudent to first enforce a level of standardization in the syllabi and the broad examination pattern (more analytical, problem-oriented) across all boards. The last suggestion is difficult to implement over a short term, as it requires changes in the way science is taught currently from class I to XII; however, some changes must be attempted in the short term, such as in the teaching style and question paper pattern, from class IX to XII (a period of 4 years). Only after this, attempts at normalizing board marks should be made, so that meaningful comparisons between individual scores may become feasible." The policy of "normalization" and inclusion of board marks for IIT admissions was eventually abandoned in 2016 based on the recommendations of a Committee of Eminent Persons(!).

A more basic issue is whether board examinations are a good measure of the attributes needed for a specific type of study. When so much of our board examination testing dwells on memorizing, regurgitating specific points mentioned in texts (in that given order!), do they really assess analytical or "deep thinking" abilities?

In any case, board marks continue to be tainted by too many undesirable factors to be considered credible for admissions - paper leakages, invigilation lapses, significant use of unfair means, favoritism in marks under school control (e.g. practicals), mysterious moderation policies and, of course, grade inflation so that a very large number students score in the high 90s (e.g. 99 in Biology and English!).

If we think that the board marks route can rid us of coaching, the evidence says something else. Instead of students becoming "serious about school" (in 2012), what actually happened was the "integration" of coaching classes with schools! As soon as the scheme combining board and JEE marks was announced in 2012, advertisements from coaching classes for "combo" packages (coaching for the JEE and Boards) appeared the next day!! Much has happened since, including an ineffective "ban" on such integration and the opening of schools run by the coaching classes themselves.

I wonder if policy makers truly realize the extent and significance of the problems that plague school education. There is constant buzz of great things like "Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation", "high order thinking" and "problem-solving skills", but very little moves on the ground. Of what use is all this talk when huge teacher vacancies, poorly trained and overburdened teachers, crumbling infrastructure, an unexciting curricula and frequent flip-flops on policy issues infect every part of the system.

(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)

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