To aspire for a perfect assessment solution when everything else is unequal and in a state of disarray is like looking for a needle in a haystack
One of the central features of the new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, which has received a lot of attention over the past couple of months, is the Common Entrance Exam (CET) proposed for selecting students for both undergraduate and graduate programmes and fellowships in Higher Education Institutions (HEI).
The National Testing Agency (NTA) has been entrusted with developing a common aptitude test, as well as subject-specific tests in the sciences, humanities, languages, arts and vocational subjects, at least twice every year. This exam will be designed to test the conceptual understanding of students and their ability to apply knowledge.
Students will have the choice to give exams in the subjects of their interest and universities will have access to each student’s individual subject portfolios. The Common Entrance Test is believed to drastically reduce the burden on students, universities and colleges, and the entire paraphernalia associated with conducting exams.
A uniform system
The idea of bringing uniformity in the admission process through a centralised exam is not new. Central University CET was first used in 2010 for admission to 1,500 seats in seven new Central universities. By 2020, the entrance test had expanded to cover 14 new central universities and four state universities.
Similar to what is being visualised in NEP, the exam entailed multiple-choice question papers covering language, general awareness, mathematical aptitude and analytical skills, as well as domain knowledge in the subjects applied for.
The proposal to conduct a common entrance exam gained currency in recent times because of two reasons — its inclusion in the NEP and cancellation of board exams due to the pandemic. Therefore, an urgent need was felt to identify a suitable selection mechanism to help students transition from school to college.
There are arguments being presented both for and against the proposed CET. On one hand, it is being stated that the standardisation of such an exam will lessen the burden on resources, both human and financial, and systematise an assessment framework desirably objective and transparent to all.
On the other hand, it is accused of undermining the autonomy of universities and diluting the interdisciplinary nature of the university system. Further, the inflexibility inherent in such an exam by virtue of its focus on uniformity is seen to impose constraints on students, cause enormous stress and further promote the coaching industry.
It is also seen to be biased against students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may not have the wherewithal to acquire both the knowledge expected and technique of cracking the exam either from their homes, schools or tuition centres.
The question being asked here really is: whether the Common Entrance Test is more discriminatory than the earlier method of admitting students on the basis of their marks scored in board exams. Any selection exam is discriminatory in nature by virtue of its very objective.
Be it a board exam or a CET, where the manifest/benign objective is to select a few students for a particular course, scholarship, job, etc., and the implicit/insidious objective is to eliminate a larger number of candidates. The challenge therefore is to construct an examination pattern which is standardised and objective so that its results are acceptable to all appearing for the exam.
That’s the reason why despite huge variations among students’ home backgrounds and schools that they study in, the examination system which treats everyone alike is rarely ever challenged. The irony is that the roots of its discriminatory nature lie in the very approach which is neutral and similar in allocating marks to students and thereby determining their worth.
For example, a cobbler’s son with zero parental support from home studying in a poorly equipped school suddenly finds himself competing with say, a university professor’s son studying in an elite private institution. The exam marks them both on the same parameters without granting any concessions to the former.
Strangely enough, this system remains unquestioned, enjoys legitimacy and pricks no one’s conscience.
No singular approach or mode of assessment, especially an exam which is based on double anonymity of both the assessor and assessed, can do justice to students from marginalised backgrounds. Just the way the board exams is more about cracking the technique of scoring more marks and not necessarily about intelligence or merit, the CET may also eventually become all about mastering techniques of cracking it.
While there are a few students from disadvantaged backgrounds who also do remarkably well in these exams, they are exceptions rather than the rule.
While there could be several other modes (e.g. portfolios, interviews, records of past performance, etc.) which could be used to determine a candidate’s suitability for a particular programme, but considering the large numbers, it will be a huge drain on resources, manpower, time, etc.
Moreover, in a situation where the numbers applying in a country like India is proportionately larger than the opportunities available, one would always look for an efficient system to both eliminate the large numbers of applicants and also make them feel their failure and inability to secure seats is their own fault.
It is heartening to see so much public interest in students’ future. Almost every day there is some news, both in electronic and print media, around cancellation of board exams and search for the right mode of student selection into higher education institutes. It would have been more heartening to see such discussions and debates on provision of equitable educational opportunities, establishing common school systems, addressing the constraints of varied home backgrounds and provision of additional academic support and scholarships, etc.
In a stratified and grossly unequal society with equally hierarchical and discriminatory schooling systems, there cannot be a fair and equitable common assessment framework for distributing/withholding limited rewards. At most, one can hope for a competent and practical solution which serves the needs of the society, schools, educational institutions and students.
The author is professor and dean, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Views expressed are personal.
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