The fallacy of one nation, one examination

Published : Jul 09, 2024 19:14 IST - 18 MINS READ

Students protesting over the NEET-UG and UGC-NET examinations issue outside the Ministry of Education in New Delhi on June 20.

Students protesting over the NEET-UG and UGC-NET examinations issue outside the Ministry of Education in New Delhi on June 20. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, we need a system that combines aptitude test scores with academic performance to make the merit list.

The National Testing Agency’s (NTA) fiasco this year has assumed such astronomical proportions that the Ministry of Education (MoE) had to look for a space scientist to lead a high-powered committee to inquire into it and suggest measures to avert such debacles in the future.

The controversies involving the NTA raise doubts about its ability to efficiently conduct the eligibility-cum-entrance examinations for admissions into higher education programmes in the country. What has surfaced so far seems to be only the tip of the iceberg.

It all began with a simple doubt about an abnormally high number of candidates getting a perfect score (720/720) in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to undergraduate programmes in the medical stream: MBBS, BDS, BAMS, BUMS, and BHMS.

As many as 67 candidates, compared with 2 or 3 in the previous years, scored cent per cent marks in the NEET-UG. Getting a perfect score in one of the most competitive entrance examinations in the country ought to be a rarity. For reference, this year nearly 24 lakh individuals registered for the examination to compete for fewer than 1.25 lakh seats.

The mystery deepened with the discovery that some of those who had scored full marks had appeared in the test from the same centre, and a few at centres a couple of thousand kilometres away from their place of residence.

Also Read | NTA’s dangerous obsession with centralisation

A probe into the issue revealed that the NTA had granted grace marks to as many as 1,563 candidates, ostensibly to compensate them for the loss of their time, either due to delay in the commencement of the test at their centres or because they spent precious time solving a question that had an error. Interestingly, 44 of the 67 candidates secured the perfect score simply because of the grace marks awarded to them.

The NTA sought to justify its decision by citing a 2018 Supreme Court judgment relating to the Common Law Admission Test, which had evolved a normalisation formula to redress a similar exigency.

Supreme Court intervention

Hearing the petitions challenging the award of grace marks, the Supreme Court ordered the withdrawal of the grace marks and gave the students the option to either accept the actual marks scored by them or take a retest. Importantly, of the 1,563 grace marks recipients, only 813 (52 per cent) chose to appear for the retest held on June 23. When the result of the retest was announced on July 1, only one of them got full marks.

As if these were not enough to dent the credibility of the NTA, news of paper leaks started pouring in from Bihar and later from Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, and Maharashtra. Surprisingly, many of the candidates from these States chose to appear for the NEET-UG at far-flung centres in Gujarat. Apparently, some organised syndicates and examination mafia have been at work to breach the sanctity of the test.

Yet, the NEET-UG has not been cancelled as yet because the NTA and the MoE still feel that the paper leak was localised and limited to a few centres and that a retest would put millions of students to hardship and unnecessarily delay the academic session.

Since then the Supreme Court has warned that even an iota of error in the conduct of the test will not be tolerated. It has, though, declined to stay the counselling for admission to medical programmes on the basis of the 2024 NEET-UG score.

In the meantime, the CBI took over the cases relating to the NEET-UG, which led to several arrests from different locations.

The issue triggered nationwide protests demanding that the NEET-UG be cancelled, with students and parents calling for a “RE-NEET” and banning the NTA. The opposition parties raised the issue in Parliament.

Currently, a bunch of petitions is pending before the Supreme Court. The next hearing is slated for July 8. The aspirants hope that the 2024 NEET-UG will be cancelled and conducted again by a credible agency or organisation.

Candidates appearing for NEET outside the examination hall in Palakkad on May 5.

Candidates appearing for NEET outside the examination hall in Palakkad on May 5. | Photo Credit: K.K. MUSTAFAH

It is also expected that the Supreme Court will reconsider its 2013 and 2016 verdicts by which NEET scores became the sole basis for admission to medical programmes not only within the country but also anywhere else in the world.

The single common entrance test that came to be known as NEET was presented as a panacea to all that ailed the admissions process to medical programmes in the country. But the much-touted “cure” has proven to be worse than the “disease”. It is high time that policy planners, medical education regulators, administrative ministries, and the judiciary revisited the decision with an open mind.

The NTA’s notoriety for messing up its core activities of conducting entrance tests may not have reached its zenith, but it has already reached a level where nothing appears surprising.

Also Read | Editor’s Note: Dirty skeletons in the NEET closet

In 2024 alone, it cancelled or rescheduled many entrance tests. The University Grants Commission-National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) examination was cancelled a day after it was held because cybersecurity and intelligence agencies had sufficient evidence that the paper was out on the dark net and was freely shared on cloud-based instant messaging portals much before the scheduled date.

The Joint Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-NET examination was also cancelled probably as a precautionary measure. So was the National Common Entrance Test for admission to the four-year integrated teacher education programmes; it was postponed hours before it was scheduled to happen on June 12. The NEET-PG examination has also been put on hold.

NTA: Culprit and victim of mismanagement

The NTA has been both a culprit and victim of repeated mismanagement since its beginning. Errors in scoring and the preparation of merit lists have been reported in the past. Technical glitches, postponement, and rescheduling of examinations have been rather frequent.

This year itself, the Common University Entrance Test (CUET) was postponed in Delhi centres from May 15 to 29, almost at the last minute, simply because the NTA suddenly realised that it would be difficult to get adequate staff and infrastructure because of the Lok Sabha election in Delhi on May 25.

Assam Pradesh Youth Congress members demonstrate against the rigging in the NEET exam and paper leak issues, outside Rajiv Bhawan in Guwahati on July 4.

Assam Pradesh Youth Congress members demonstrate against the rigging in the NEET exam and paper leak issues, outside Rajiv Bhawan in Guwahati on July 4. | Photo Credit: Abdul Sajid/ANI

Critically, the NTA is yet to upload the answer keys of CUETs held in the hybrid mode between May 15 and 29. Students are apprehensive that their results are likely to be delayed which may, in turn, cause the academic session to go awry in not just 46 Central universities but close to 250 universities that have so far joined the CUET.

But this is not the first time that students have been subjected to extreme anxiety. They have been seeing their career aspirations jeopardised since the NTA took over the CUET. The very first year of the CUET was nightmarish for students and their families.

The number of participating universities and programmes on offer kept changing even after the admission application process was closed. The test centres were cancelled and changed not only after the admit cards had been issued but even at the very last moment.

The NTA assumed that every aspirant had round-the-clock access to the Internet and the NTA website. It also assumed that the last-minute shifting of the examination centre from one part of a city to another would pose no difficulty to the examinees.

No less peeved were the participating universities in the CUET. They found their seats unfilled for months after the announcement of results. Many had to offer admissions on a first come, first served basis, thereby diluting the quality of their intake. There were inordinate delays in completing the admissions process and starting the academic sessions.

The CUET was dubbed an effective instrument to promote equitable access to quality higher education and reduce the hassles faced by students in getting a seat in the programmes and institutions of their choice. Ironically, over the past two years, it has ended up doing just the opposite.

The way the National Education Policy (NEP 2020) was read, interpreted, and implemented could partly be responsible for the current catastrophe as it sowed the seed of the idea of “One Nation, One Examination”.

Arguing for a common principle for entrance examinations “with due regard to diversity and university autonomy”, the NEP 2020 provided that the “NTA would conduct entrance for admission to undergraduate, postgraduate and fellowship in higher education”.

It had hoped that “the high quality, range and flexibility of NTA test would enable most universities in the country to use these common entrance exams, and, thereby, drastically reduce the burden on students, universities and colleges, and the entire education system”.

Even though the policy stressed that “it would be left to the individual universities and colleges to use NTA assessments for their admissions”, the UGC chose to make it obligatory for all Central universities to admit students solely on the basis of the scores of the Central University Entrance Test to be conducted by the NTA.

CBSE: A Snapshot
In 2022:
There were 28,402 schools affiliated to the CBSE.
35,53,549 pupils had registered for board exams.
Exams were held in 7,405 centres.
The board deployed 4,05,944 staff for exam duty.
The exams were held in 1,97,419 rooms and the papers evaluated in 1,857 centres.

Despite repeated glitches and goof-ups, many more universities were cajoled into joining, and the test was renamed the Common University Entrance Test, pushing forward the agenda of One Nation, One Examination.

The CUET was much more than adding just another test to the NTA kitty. It imposed the onerous burden of conducting entrance examinations in about 55,000 subject combinations from the very first year.

Since then, the NTA has been under visible strain. It had too little manpower and access to quality test centres to conduct so many examinations.

CUET and the undoing of the NTA

It may not be an exaggeration to suggest that the introduction of the CUET has proven to be the undoing of the NTA. What has happened this year was just waiting to happen.

The NTA was established in November 2017 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development and was registered as a society under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, on May 15, 2018. Established with the due approval of the Cabinet, it was envisaged to be a “premier, specialist, autonomous and self-sustained organisation to conduct entrance examinations for admission/fellowships in higher education institutions”. It conveyed commitment to overcoming the challenges in “assessing the competence of candidates for admission and recruitment… with research-based international standards, efficiency, transparency and error-free delivery”.

The NTA was supposed to address the challenges it faced by “using best in every field from test preparation, to test delivery and test marking”. By “test marking”, it presumably means evaluation, scoring, and preparation of the merit list.

In a span of five years, the NTA was entrusted with the responsibility of conducting 17 different examinations. Media reports indicate that in 2023 as many as 12.3 million candidates registered for different examinations conducted by the NTA. This makes it the second-largest testing agency in the world, next to China’s Gaokao, which in the same year had 12.9 million registrations.

Going by the 2022-23 annual report of the MoE, the NTA conducted 26 different examinations covering close to 13.16 million candidates. Additionally, 1.49 million candidates took the CUET-2022. These numbers make the NTA the single largest testing agency in the world.

  • The National Testing Agency’s credibility has been hit, with question paper leaks of NEET-UG coming from Bihar, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, and Maharashtra.
  • Going by the 2022-23 annual report of the Ministry of Education, the NTA conducted 26 different examinations covering close to 13.16 million candidates. This makes the NTA the single largest testing agency in the world.
  • Fixing the responsibility and punishing the culprits may act only as a temporary deterrent. The most workable and sustainable solution is to admit students to higher education programmes on the merit of their past academic records.

A fledgling organisation

The NTA seems to have bitten off more than it can chew. It is still a fledgling organisation. Its website provides little about the organisation and its staff. What it proffers is the names of its chairperson, the director general, and one more member. All other board members are mentioned by their designations and affiliations without disclosing their names or identities, none being full-time members.

The NTA’s website does not provide the names of any other officers of the agency but only a list of sections dealing with different tests and activities along with their email addresses. All offices share the same two landline phone numbers. The annual reports and audited accounts of the NTA too could not be retrieved.

Normally, a large-sized and well-staffed public organisation would want to disclose far more details about itself to win trust and gain transparency, particularly when it is entrusted with such demanding and sensitive responsibilities of conducting not only the entrance and eligibility examination for admission and fellowships for higher education but also for admission and scholarships for school education as well as a few recruitment tests.

A protest outside Calcutta University over the alleged irregularities in NEET 2024 results, in Kolkata on July 4.

A protest outside Calcutta University over the alleged irregularities in NEET 2024 results, in Kolkata on July 4. | Photo Credit: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

The NTA may seemingly have fewer senior permanent staff than the number of tests and examinations it conducts. In all probability, it may be relying heavily on consultants, outsourced manpower, and third-party service providers even for critical, confidential, and strategic tasks.

The absence of a sufficient number of full-time senior staff in an organisation puts its executive head under severe strain, increasing its vulnerability to vested interests. It becomes susceptible to different pulls and pressures.

It eventually reached a level where it simply lost its bearings. The NTA was supposed to be modelled on agencies that conduct the Scholastic Aptitude Test, American College Testing, Graduate Record Examination, Graduate Management Aptitude Test, Test of English as a Foreign Language, and International English Language Testing System.

They all do computer-based testing (CBT), not only once but many times a year. Some are even contemplating offering on-demand examinations. By doing so, they will be able to reduce digital and physical infrastructure requirements and logistical challenges.

The NTA has been moving in the reverse direction. It began with CBT but soon switched to the pen-and-paper mode for some large and crucial examinations. Even the CBT conducted by the NTA is administered in a conventional mode, with all applicants having to appear for the test at a designated centre on a single or, at the most, dual time slots. This poses serious logistical challenges, making the system susceptible to several compromises.

Subject-based assessment versus aptitude-based testing

Most critically, global testing agencies rely on aptitude-based testing and limit subject-based assessment to a maximum of five subject categories. The NTA, on the other hand, conducts subject-based assessments, with subject combinations often running into the thousands, particularly in examinations such as the CUET for admission into undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

All these taken together have so contained the NTA to routine affairs and firefighting that it can hardly focus on what is important. Six years since it came into existence, many of the important activities that the agency had planned to undertake remain mere promises and assurances.

It has yet to develop any significant database of high-quality question/item banks, a sine qua non for any credible testing agency. Better ones would venture to start their operations only after developing reasonably large-sized question banks consisting of standardised items of varying difficulty levels.

Quality assurance of the testing and assessment process is considered crucial for ensuring the integrity and credibility of agencies. This objective is often achieved by regularly reporting the consistency, validity, and reliability statistics of all the assessments that a testing agency undertakes. No such statistics have so far been disclosed by the NTA.

These are some of the pointers of deficiencies in the structure and process of the NTA. Taking a symptomatic view of the situation may not lead to suggestions in making the system and process foolproof and rather robust. Unless the problem is thoroughly examined, the high-powered committee may end up identifying a few loopholes here and there and come up with a standard operating procedure that the testing agency must henceforth follow.

Also Read | Is NTA’s MCQ fixation failing India’s higher education?

Difficulties in coping with logistical challenges or inability to foresee and prevent rigging of the examination system are procedural issues. So long as the problem is perceived to be emanating from procedural lapses, the focus of attention is likely to remain confined to improving the process.

There is every likelihood that the committee may end up prescribing additional checks and balances, a higher level of technology integration, and the use of some security features in the printing, distribution, administration, and overall conduct of examinations.

Such an approach would be tantamount to no more than symptomatic treatment. These may provide some reprieve but may not address the problem in its totality. Preventing malpractices and use of unfair means and safeguarding the sanctity of testing through increased vigil are only a part of the problem. The issues involved are much deeper and call for systemic reforms.

Eligibility tests as the sole criterion for admission

The invention of and dependence on entrance and eligibility tests as the only means of allotting seats and granting admission to further higher education programmes has given rise to many malpractices in the education system.

Entrance examinations, whether they are administered by a Central agency, a State organisation, or higher educational institutions, undermine the importance and significance of school boards and ignore the critical role that schooling plays in the learning and lives of children.

Students being checked and frisked before entering the examination centre for NEET in Visakhapatnam, a 2018 picture.

Students being checked and frisked before entering the examination centre for NEET in Visakhapatnam, a 2018 picture. | Photo Credit: C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Over-reliance on the scores obtained in the entrance examinations has led to a rampant rise in the number of coaching centres and institutes whose exclusive focus is on coaching their clients to crack multiple-choice questions quickly rather than thoughtfully.

The menace of coaching has distorted the education system in many ways. They distract students from their schools. They have given rise to what is known as ghost schools, which enrol students, give them attendance, and allow them to appear in board examinations as their students, but they do no teaching. Students are left free to attend their coaching classes.

Outside the formal education system, coaching centres and institutes, whether they are run offline, online, or by edtech, operate as for-profit entities charging as much as their clientele can afford, thus putting a heavy financial burden on students. This makes the highly competitive and economically rewarding higher education system quite exclusionary.

Inherently flawed system

The idea of a centralised system of admission based solely on the merit and scores of entrance tests is inherently flawed. It simply raises the premium for and increases the likelihood of unscrupulous elements to exploit and manipulate the system. Entrance examinations conducted by States or even by individual universities are yet another kind of centralisation and suffer from the same or similar deficiencies as the national-level testing does.

Fixing the responsibility, catching the culprits involved in the paper leaks by circumventing the system, and subjecting them to the strictest possible exemplary punishment may act only as a temporary deterrent.

The most workable and sustainable solution, therefore, lies in going back to the basics but with some fundamental reform. That is, to admit students to higher education programmes on the merit of their past academic records, that is, the percentage of marks or grades obtained in the board or qualifying examination.

Considering the fact that India has more than 48 school boards and over a thousand universities, it will be necessary to find some way to minimise or normalise inter-board variations in the system of education, examination, evaluations, and marks awarded. Statistical tools are readily available for the normalisation of scores, but they may involve a tedious and time-consuming process of collecting and collating pan-India data.

Also Read | Is NEET designed for exclusion?

But we can get around the problem by admitting students on the combined merit of their past academic records and their scores in an aptitude-based test. Such an aptitude-based test could be organised by a reformed national testing agency at the central level.

The relative weightage of the aptitude test and previous academic records could be determined with due deliberations in the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), which is headed by the Union Education Minister and is represented by the Ministers of Education of all States and Union Territories with legislature. The idea is that the scores obtained in the aptitude-based test effectively modify and moderate the inter-board or inter-varsity variations in marks.

An admissions system like this would bring the focus back on school education and restore the importance of board examinations. It may save students a lot of the hassles they currently undergo because of a single common entrance examination.

This would easily emerge as a truly decentralised system of admission and may save the nation from the fallacious idea of One Nation, One Examination. India is simply too large and too diverse for such a highly centralised system of admissions.

Besides, for an idea to work, it must be kept in mind that India is a Union of States and that education, being in the Concurrent List of the Constitution, the Central and State governments have shared power and responsibilities on all matters relating to education. The fact that the coordination and maintenance of standards in higher education has been put in the Union List must not be used to undermine the role of States in providing education.

Furqan Qamar, Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, has served as the Secretary General of AIU, Vice Chancellor of the University of Rajasthan and the Central University of Himachal Pradesh, and as Adviser for Education in the erstwhile Planning Commission of India.

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