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Right of admission

As India’s education czars battled with Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) teachers this May over creating a single national admission test for all engineering schools, neighbouring China was grappling with a similar debate: only turned inside out. Charu Sudan Kasturi reports.

education Updated: Sep 02, 2012 01:40 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi
Charu Sudan Kasturi
Hindustan Times

As India’s education czars battled with Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) teachers this May over creating a single national admission test for all engineering schools, neighbouring China was grappling with a similar debate: only turned inside out.

Days ahead of China’s single national entrance test for admissions to all universities, images appeared online of rows upon rows of high school students on intravenous drips. The photographs of students injecting amino-acids into their bodies to restore energy to continue cramming for the sole entry test taken by millions of college aspirants forced the Chinese government to order a probe. It also triggered a debate on whether the single national test, called the Gaokao, is outdated.

It’s a debate India may well want to follow.

Starting 2013, all central engineering schools including the IITs will use a Joint Entrance Examination to be conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education to select students. The IITs will be allowed a second exam to further select from students who clear the first test. Other central engineering schools will have to assign 40% weightage to Board examination scores, while the IITs will use these scores as an eligibility criterion.

The common test is the first step towards human resource development minister Kapil Sibal’s stated plan to eventually create a single examination covering all streams and colleges across the country like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the Gaokao.

Sibal’s plan is aimed at correcting some of the biggest ills plaguing India’s higher education admission process. Several students currently appear for up to a dozen entrance examinations for different streams and within the same stream, with multiple engineering tests. This involves high costs for students and their families.

Popular professional schools like the IITs, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the national law schools and the School of Planning and Architecture currently rely only minimally on Board performances for admissions, instead depending on different entrance tests. This has in recent years led to high school students increasingly ignoring school studies and Board examinations.

Increasing the relevance of school-leaving examinations in admissions to popular colleges will likely make students focus more on school studies. But the wide gap in standards of schooling between rural and urban India has triggered concerns that using Board scores may hurt children from underprivileged backgrounds.

Experiences globally with a single entrance examination for admissions to all colleges have been mixed. In India, such an examination would need a widespread network of test centres. It would also need the proven capability to hold the test and process results with fairness, consistency and security, says Soumitra Roy, country managing director of Prometric, which delivers the SAT, GRE and the CAT in India.

It won’t be easy. But looking at the concerns flagged in India, and learning from the experiences abroad may help India improve its troubled admission system without adopting one living on drips.

In other countries..

While China is the only country that solely relies on a single entrance test, other countries like UK and Russia have avoided it due to diversity in student backgrounds

United States
One in four accredited colleges in the US no longer requires SAT scores for all courses, though 95% need some test according to Educational Testing Services, which conducts the SAT. SAT scores, even where mandatory, are only considered alongside school-leaving scores, essays, recommendations and extra-curricular achievements while deciding on admissions. But many colleges have found a single nationwide test unable to capture the diversity in student background and interests these institutions look for, says Bill Hiss, Vice President at Bates College, a top liberal arts college and the first to turn SAT-optional in 1984. “Creating a single, make-or-break test to serve as gatekeeper to higher education in India will doubtlessly ratchet up the stress felt by many applicants,” he warns.

A single window to enter almost all Chinese universities, the Gaokao was started in 1952 and has run since, barring a decade-long gap during the Cultural Revolution. But the test, taken by 10 million students each year, faces greater scrutiny than ever for the stress it puts on students. Girls have been known to pop contraceptive pills to avoid the distraction of menstruation while preparing. “The Chinese experience with the Gaokao — an explosion of expensive coaching schools and near-annual cheating epidemics — shows the folly of relying on a single test to determine undergraduate admissions,” Schaeffer of the NCFOT says. Several Chinese educationists have recently argued against relying solely on the Gaokao. Others have argued that the Gaokao only needs some tweaks. But change appears imminent.

The UK has avoided an SAT-style single national admission test, and largely relies on school-leaving scores for varsity selections, despite a government panel recommending a single test in 2004.

But like India, the UK also has several other competitive tests for admissions to streams like medicine and law. Universities like Oxford and Cambridge also hold their own additional tests to gauge an applicant’s critical thinking abilities.

“There is no appetite for one single test when there are good secondary school exams combined with other details on the application form and the use of specific tests where they add value,” said Janet Graham, Director of the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) programme, an independent British education think tank.

Different universities traditionally conducted their own admissions, littering Russian higher education with multiple entrance tests.

In 2003, the Russian ministry of education introduced the Unified State Examination (USE) as a pilot project in some colleges. In 2009, the USE was made mandatory for all colleges across streams – with a handful of institutions allowed to use their own admission criteria.

Proponents of the USE have made some of the same arguments that India has witnessed. The USE is also the uniform school-leaving examination across Russia – in effect, a combination of a single, common Board examination and the single entrance test for all colleges. But this single test has also invited criticism that it fails to capture academic aptitude.

Case Study

Suppressing natural talent
For the past decade, Anand Kumar has been selecting 30 poor children and training them for two years to make the transition from a future without hope to one rich with promise. Super 30, his Patna-based school, sends most of the 30 selected students to the IITs every year. These include children of brick-kiln labourers, orphans and kids unable to speak a word in English. All they have, Kumar insists, is “natural talent.” “Now, with the new IIT admission rules, it is these poor children who will suffer,” he says after a Friday morning class. Most city-based coaching classes have raised their fees — lacing the IIT dreams they sell with the promise to also train students for Board examinations. Super 30, which caters only to poor children, charges no fees. Across the country, several private schools have also started special, after-school coaching for students to ensure that they can manage both school studies and IIT entrance requirements. A poor child at a government school cannot compete, Kumar says.

Favouring the privileged?
Suresh Ram knows what it takes to beat the odds and get into the IITs. But the civil engineering graduate from IIT Delhi fears that others with his background may be blocked from pursuing their dreams, even if they clear the IIT entrance examination like he did.

The son of a farm labourer, Ram went to a government school in his home district of Madhepura, Bihar. With 58% in his Board examinations, Ram may not have even been eligible for admissions under the new selection policy the premier engineering schools plan to follow from 2013, under which only students in the top 20 percentile of their Board will be considered. Today, he works as a construction design engineer for Larsen and Toubro.

"This move is against rural students," Ram argues. "They will be unable to compete with students who have access to better schooling and have an advantage in Board examinations."
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