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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

IIT Admissions: 80 percentile diluted

If newspaper reports (one here) are to be believed, the IIT Council has decided to dilute the requirement of 12th class performance to get admission in IITs. Instead of 80 percentile as of now, it will be lower of 80 percentile and 75 percentage from the next year.

Apparently, the Directors and Ministry are very concerned that about 2 percent students are denied admission to IITs even after passing the JEE Advanced.

This is very interesting, to say the least. When this system of 80 percentile was introduced in 2012 (from JEE 2013 onwards), it was stated that the criteria for school marks should be such that a couple of percent of students are denied admission to IITs. This was supposed to put pressure on all JEE candidates to take 12th class seriously. And the policy achieved exactly what was predicted - about 2 percent of students were denied admission to IITs. So when the policy achieves what was predicted to be achieved, shouldn't we call this a successful policy and the Directors and MHRD should pat themselves on their respective backs. So what went wrong?

There was another problem that people like me had pointed out. It was pointed out that in many boards, the grading is totally arbitrary, and there can be wide variation in marks depending on who grades the paper, and this wide variation in marks can result in significant variation in percentiles, and hence a high percentile in boards can be a matter of lottery and not a matter of academic performance. This was particularly true of boards which have extremely liberal marking.

If the marking is consistent, and the luck can only cause a difference of couple of percentiles, then a steep cutoff to encourage focus on school education can be justified. Someone with 79 percentile cannot claim that in a fairer grading s/he could have got 80 percentile. Well, you should have focused more on 12th class exams and tried for 85 percentile. But if someone with 79 percentile can claim that in a fairer grading system, s/he could have got 90 percentile, then the argument is that much stronger for not having the 80 percentile cutoff. Unfortunately, some students could actually point to such arbitrary grading in some of the boards.

Just two years ago, MHRD and Directors had argued that once we start focusing on the 12th class performance, the boards will be under pressure to reform. They will start having better question papers, more consistent grading, and so on. So it was just a matter of time, when everything in this country will improve and we can all live happily ever after.

Yesterday's decision of the Council is essentially admitting defeat. It is an acceptance of reality that MHRD and Directors have no control over the boards. That the boards in the last two years, instead of improving the exams and grading, have actually made it more random, more liberal. The 80 percentile cutoff in 2014 was higher than 80 percentile cutoff in 2013 in many large boards. And hence there is no evidence that boards will improve in future. I stand vindicated.

But there is an interesting side effect of this. If MHRD and IIT Directors  have started believing that the boards will not improve and that the grading is quite random to the extent that different people grading the same exam copy can result in wide variation in percentiles, should the use of 12th class marks be not stopped even for NITs and other engineering colleges.

You can't argue that boards have arbitrary grading and hence we need to dilute the 12th class marks requirement to an extent that it becomes a mere formality for IIT admission, but the same arbitrary grading can be considered for admission to all other engineering colleges.

But then consistency has never been the strength of Indian academic leadership, regulators and administrators.