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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Can we have a common entrance exam for all engineering colleges

Most people connected to education in India agrees on one thing: There are too many exams. Recently, Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to Prime Minister (SAC-PM), Prof. C N R Rao, wrote a letter to Prime Minister, saying the same thing, and amongst many suggestions asked that there be only one entrance exam for all undergraduate courses in technical education in the country. He gave example of US where the admission is based on a single exam, GRE. (He probably did not know that GRE is used for graduate admission and not under-graduate admission.) Here is the link to Indian Express news item.

T Ramasami committee, charged with the task of JEE reform, has also made a plea that there should be a single exam in the country for admission to all engineering colleges. Here is the link to Indian Express news item.

Whenever I read such news item, I wonder, why they are wasting their time. If this is a dominant viewpoint for more than a decade, and there has been absolutely zero progress despite several committees, there must be a significant problem in achieving the goal. Why don't these stalwarts think of those problems first, and either tell us how those problems can be resolved, or advise the government that this is an impractical goal.

After all, when the Ministry of HRD asked CBSE to start AIEEE (All India Engineering Entrance Exam), it was done with the definite goal that this will be that single exam for all engineering colleges. Why did that not happen. Why do some states continue with their own engineering entrance tests. Why do many private universities continue to have their own tests. But most importantly, why do IITs continue to have their own test.

I am particularly asking this question about merging AIEEE and JEE, since this should have been the easiest to achieve administratively. After all, both CBSE and IITs are supervised by Ministry of HRD. MHRD can call the stake holders of both the exams, and thrash out any issues. If you can not convince your own organizations to do a single exam, then you should forget about a grand unification of all exams in the country. It is a waste of time even attempting it.

Why can't we merge AIEEE and JEE. I don't know, but I can do some loud thinking. First is the issue of trust. I don't think IITs really trust that AIEEE is organized as honestly as JEE (though there is really no data point to doubt the integrity of AIEEE, if anything they are more transparent). Second, there is a difference of opinion on whether the entrance test should be to select those who are good students and understand the 12th class science, or the entrance test should select those who don't need to be taught science in the first year. And lastly, let us not forget that both the exams earn a handsome amount of money for the organizers. And then, of course, IIT system has time and again shown that they are rigid, and would adopt changes only when the Minister has the guts to call their bluff and force them to change (and then we will all crib about loss of autonomy). So we will not give up JEE unless Minister forces us to do so.

I don't think there are any insurmountable problems in merging AIEEE and JEE. And unless it is done, you do not have any moral authority to ask other universities or states to not conduct their own entrance exam. If IITs have a special need for their own exam, when they test the same subjects, with roughly the same curriculum, then how can you argue that the University of XYZ, who actually has a different admission criteria (may be they test the language, or they give different weights to Physics, Chemistry and Maths, or they have a different syllabus, etc.), does not have that special need for its own exam.

Also, people suggesting a single entrance exam would do well to study the admission process in US universities. If they do that, they will realize that while US does have its SAT, it is only one of the many parameters that the admission office will look at. There is a subjective evaluation of multiple parameters, which is important since different universities may want to (and indeed do) give different weights to components of that evaluation. In Indian scenario, having subjective evaluation of admission applications is unthinkable because of the pressure that it would entail on the admission office, to give admission to well connected ones. So, if a university genuinely wants to evaluate different skills, it has no option but to go for its own admission test.

We have this important requirement that the admission test should be after the board exams in March. We need to finalize admissions by July, and therefore, all results must come in June (preferably early June). All this means that we only have about one month for all the exams, from 1st week of April to 1st week of May. Therefore, we cannot have the luxury of allowing a repeat of the exam, if a candidate does not perform well in that exam on that day. This is too dangerous for students, if we are going to have a single exam. Multiple exams actually allow mental peace to students as they know that if they don't perform well in one exam, they still have hopes of getting admission in the next best set of Institutes.

To have a single exam, we will have to have a system by which a student can give the exam twice or even thrice within the same admission cycle. This would mean that the exam would have to be conducted throughout the year. It means that the syllabus to be tested can only be 11th class syllabus, but that is not standardized across the country. (The combined syllabus of 11th and 12th has a reasonable overlap across the country, but the order in which these topics are taught in different boards vary.)

And, of course, the exams are a major money earner for the state technical universities as well as the private universities. (But this is changing. Private universities have realized that they can charge Rs. 1000 per candidate as application fee, even if they are using AIEEE score for admission. So why conduct one's own exam, which is an additional cost.)

Based on all the reasons I have stated above, I do not see a common entrance exam for all engineering colleges in near future.

So, is there no hope at all. Well, I think there is a possibility of a common entrance test, but it will have to be very different from anything that is going on right now. First of all, it will have to be a computer based test, with a large question bank in every subject, generating random questions for every candidate form that bank. Second, it will have to be conducted through out the year, with students allowed to take it multiple times, and improve their score. Third, it will have to have several optional components so that different universities can consider scores in different sections, depending on their needs. Different sections may be not just physics, chemistry, maths, biology, engineering drawing, english (and other languages), aptitude, general knowledge, and so on, but could also be Maths (low level), and Maths (high level). Also, within a section, the test could be adaptive like GRE, where by the questions asked depend on the level of the candidate. If a candidate is answering most questions correctly, then the computer starts asking more difficult questions from the question bank (and of course, it has historical data to standardize all questions' difficulty level), and the reverse happens, if a candidate cannot answer many questions. This would imply that the higher score is not just by answering more easy questions, but indicate an understanding of the higher order by that candidate.

All this will take at least 7-8 years from now. JEE preparations start an year in advance. So, no change in 2012. The earliest that AIEEE and JEE can be merged is 2013. After its experience will it become easier to convince others. At least 3-4 years will be needed for those negotiations. So if your kids have gone past the primary school, do not hope for the common entrance test for him/her.


Jaya said...

I guess these considerations can not be used for policy making :), but for me the biggest attachment with JEE was that preparing for JEE was much more fun and challenge than the +2 course. Any combined exam will tend more and more towards the +2 board exam. Probably JEE is also already moving in that direction? But that's so boring.

Vikram said...

Dr. Sanghi, I would not want to lose hope of a more holistic admission process. It really would ease a tremendous amount of pressure on young students.

Perhaps our educators and policy makers need to give the subjective procedure more thought. We dont have to adopt a US like version but we should definitely try to evolve our own.