NEET-JEE: It’s time to enable students to ‘take’, not ‘give’, exams
Like much of the fallout of the Covid-19 crisis, the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET)/Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) exams pose a conundrum with no perfect answers. Every solution comes with faults.
Think for a moment of the students who have prepared for this, gearing up for years, mentally preparing for peak performance on the day. They find themselves ready, only to be let down if the examination does not take place. A year lost, worse, momentum lost, which they may not regain. A competitive exam is as much about one’s emotional state as it is about knowledge and application.
The same recognition of it being about one’s emotional state can be used to flip the argument. Think of those thousands of students who find themselves affected by the pandemic, unable to concentrate and prepare under these conditions.
Then again, there is the mega problem of safe examinations. Even if by some miracle, the examination authorities were able to organise socially-distanced examinations, with larger halls, sanitised papers and protective clothing for all, the problem of reaching the location remains. With the pandemic still in play, to travel to and from another location, stay in shared accommodation and to increase interaction via transactions such as food, tickets and more for the hundreds of thousands of students who take the exam, is risky. This is exactly the kind of contact that all governments are trying to avoid. To lose a year, or to risk lives — that seems to be the stark choice. This is not a trade-off, this is a bind.
Much of this mess is because the examination systems in the country have not kept pace with available technology. If everything depends upon one date and location, obviously there will be problems. A student still has to go to the exams, rather than the examinations being made available to them. No wonder most Indians use the verb “give” for exams rather than the technically correct “take”. They have to give a lot to take the examination. Covid-19 has brought this to a crisis, where thousands of students are clamouring that they do not have the ability to give in these conditions. From a systems point of view, continuity is important, and the authorities have already said that the examination must go on.
The current debate has come to a head because we have not created an examination system that serves the varied needs of students. Students are not a homogenised unit. They are real people with real-world problems and challenges. The crisis now seeks an operational solution — cancel — whereas we should be looking at a systemic solution that sustains, with cognisance of student pressures.
The entire NEET-JEE crisis is because we have not invested in multiple chances and choices for examinations. Undoubtedly, the examination administration system has vast years of experience, but it needs to demonstrate agility and outreach in examination-delivery design.
Which means, let examinations reach out to students, let them take it at multiple times during the year, and let the scores be valid for a reasonable period, typically three years. Every public library, whether attached to a college, university or not, can become an examination centre on call. Ideally, the examination can be online and on call, but if that proves difficult, then on a few set dates every quarter. There is no reason to link the application process to the examination process when technology has raced ahead of old administrative mores. Covid-19 catalyses this essential paradigm change.
Students who are ready can bank their preparation and take their exam now. Others must have another chance every few months, if not on-demand, with institutional proctoring. What, then, happens to the much-vaunted rankings and percentiles? They can be normalised on an updated distribution curve across time. In many ways, this is fairer to all students across circumstances. This only calls on simple statistics taught by the very people who set these papers.
This is a time to seek another shift too — one of scale. Even with the exams held now, a semester may already have been lost. We have already come to a crisis where there will be a bunching of students and batches during the Covid-19 years. In managing that, we have a chance to scale up engineering and medical capacity. For years, many have been calling for scaling up current professional colleges by leveraging capacity, enabling support faculty and digital potential in line with many schools of excellence globally. Rearranging courses into modules with sequential requirements, and including blended learning, will enable scale shifts.
During the crisis, most learning is digital, and these modules may need further bridge courses in later years. There is also a good case to be made for running at least two batches per year, with separate starts.
Multiple exams, multiple starts will give relief to those who did not have the resources to make it to the exam this time. This combined approach of sequential requirements, modular digital courses and bridge courses may serve the country during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.