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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Should we admit students through a lottery

 Thanks to my good friend, Surya Mantha, I read this long article on the Christmas day, titled "The Myth of American Meritocracy," by Ron Unz on the American Conservative website. The URL of the fascinating article is:

I will not go into the details of discrimination charges, but the solution seemed interesting, and I was wondering if the same solution would work for IITs (not that we have a problem of discrimination).

Paraphrasing his suggestion, it would mean that in an IIT, we get some top few rankers of JEE (say, up to the rank of 1000), and then we look at the next 40-50 thousand students, and select randomly amongst them through a lottery.

The advantages of this scheme would be (again, my understanding of how this scheme would work in the IIT context):

1. The goal of the students would become to get into top 50,000, since getting into top 1000 is just too difficult a goal. This is an easier goal than the current system where every single mark can change your career completely, and hence you will try to do everything to increase the chances of getting that extra mark. And if enough good students would not go through such an extreme form of competition, coaching, etc., then more students would have a normal childhood.

2. The unfair biases that any strongly competitive admission process would introduce will not be present in a lottery based system. So, for example, the admission process would not be discriminatory to women, and we would see a more gender balanced class. (The process itself is not discriminatory, but the fact that very few women are allowed to go to Kota kind of places for coaching, makes the overall system discriminatory.)

3. It will temper the arrogance found in too many of today's IIT students. Students would behave normally with each other, and greater amount of interaction amongst them will actually improve the quality of education.

4. Not getting into IITs would not be a matter of shame or stress. There is no shame in losing a lottery. So less stress in the society for everyone.

5. Since students were simply winners of the lottery, the society will treat non-IITians with much more respect that they truly deserve. A few random marks lost in a test is no way to judge and treat human beings.

The loss in this scheme, as one will surely argue, is that we are not getting the top few students, but the next best. As the article would argue, students at the very top are truly exceptional (in academic sense), and latter students are all roughly equal. (If you think 50K is too low, make it 40K.) In a sense, trying to rank students after the few truly exceptional ones, is a lottery by itself. Luck plays too big a role today. So we are just replacing one type of lottery with another form of lottery, but this new form of lottery does not induce stress, which the current form of lottery does.

Having said all this, I am not fully convinced of the lottery, and hence seek the views of my readers.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Changes to GATE

A strategy committee for GATE has been formed. They have a problem to worry about. The number of candidates giving GATE will be 11 lakhs in 2013. The number was less than 8 lakhs in 2012. It is obvious that the current model of conducting GATE, where faculty members of IITs and IISc are present in each and every center, cannot be scaled beyond the current numbers.

But I find the initial proposal amusing. I know that it is just an initial proposal, and it may get changed during the course of further discussions. So, in a sense, this article is really to initiate the discussion on a public forum, rather than keep that discussion only restricted to the faculty members of IITs and IISc.

The proposal is to have a two tier exam, and following the example of JEE, the two exams will be named as GATE and GATE Advanced (How I wish it were Main Gate and Advanced Gate). The first tier will be during September/October, only online, on multiple days (but each student can give it only once), and conducted with the help of a partner organization with expertise in conducting online exams. The question bank for this test will still be responsibility of the GATE committee. Each exam will be of two-hour duration, and will have only Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs).

The selected candidates in the GATE will only be able to appear for GATE Advanced. It is expected that about 15 percent students will qualify for GATE Advanced. GATE Advanced will be a 3-hour exam, and will only be in the discipline of that exam. No questions on Engineering Maths, Aptitude, etc., which would have been covered in GATE. So this will allow greater coverage of the subject, since the entire 3 hours is focused on the subject.

I have a problem with this two-tier exam. If we can have the first tier for 11 lakhs (or whatever that number becomes in 2014 and beyond), then why not just use the score of the tier 1 for admission, and any other purpose that anyone may use the score for.

The strategy committee has two reasons for not using the GATE score for admission, and insisting on GATE Advanced. (They don't give these reasons in the proposal. They don't even consider the possibility of just changing the current GATE to proposed new GATE. But the proposal has something from which one can guess these two reasons.)

The first reason is that GATE Advanced will be able to cover the syllabus better, by just focusing on the subject test.

The second reason is that it avoids the comparison of multiple tests, since some inequality of the various tests will only impact selection for the GATE Advanced, and that too of the weakest candidates, and all stronger candidates will get exactly the same paper (GATE Advanced) and thus the comparison for admission will be fair.

The first reason is going against the very reason for including aptitude and engineering maths in the GATE paper. These two items were introduced by arguing that they are a good predictor of quality of preparedness of the student for higher education. But now, we are saying that anyone ranked 1 and ranked 1.6 lakh in the GATE are equal for the purpose of admission, which will only be done on the basis of GATE Advanced. This immediately means that people who perform poorly in engineering maths and aptitude portion and do well in the technical questions may get poorer marks in the GATE, but that will not affect their admission at all. And given that selection to GATE Advanced will be at very low scores (similar to GATE qualifying marks currently), these two topics are as good as useless for most students to prepare. Then we might as well make the first paper subject only, and cover the subject well in that paper.

The second reason is an admission of incompetence. We are admitting that even after having an experience of more than 50 years of conducting competitive exams, we have no clue as to how do we scientifically compare the two tests. This admission of incompetence is not a problem by itself. After all, we are primarily experts in science or engineering and not in subjects such as testing. But what is amazing to me is that while we admit our incompetence, we do not wish to seek expert help. Surely, there must be people in this country who understand these issues. And if there are no experts in testing in India, can we not seek consultancy from people elsewhere in the world. After all, everyone faces the same problem in such testing. GRE faces the same problem, just to give an example.

The simple logic would dictate that if you are having two tests than you should test different things in those two tests. And this was the problem in the JEE debate also (and the compromise that we have all accepted for JEE for 2013). If one has to do two tier tests, the first test should be just aptitude and engineering maths. Everyone should be allowed to give the second test, with the expectation that most universities and PSUs and other users of the score will require a minimum score in the aptitude and engineering maths. This would automatically reduce the number of students for the second test drastically, since everyone will first give aptitude and if get poor score will not find any good reason to waste more good money. But even if lot of students sit for the second test, it does not matter, since that too will be online and on multiple days.