Calcutta Notebook


At present there exists a huge variation in standards of technical colleges in the country, a majority of who churn out graduates who are not employable. To buck this trend, the ministry of human resource development is planning a major revamp of India’s technical education. The strategy involves rolling out the single National Entrance Examination for Technical Institutions from January 2018. The proposed NEETI Exam for admission to engineering programmes will be the first exam to be conducted by the National Testing Service (NTS), which will be completely computer-based. The exams will be conducted multiple times in a year.

At present IITs, IIMs, CBSE and more conduct separate admission tests. Aspiring candidates have to appear in multiple tests. The first round of all these tests will be subsumed in a common test taken from the NTS. The NTS will be established along the lines of the Educational Testing Service of the United States. At present large numbers of universities and autonomous colleges are handing out degrees that have wide variation in quality. Many are charging huge fees. The aspirant does not know what the quality of education he will get. A common test will enable the aspirants to assess the performance of the provider. The aspirant can see the marks obtained by students of that institution in the NEETI Exam to get an idea of the Quality of education. Private colleges will not be able to hoodwink the applicants by marketing campaigns: They will not be misled by the high marks given by the private institutions.

But there are many thorns on the road. A paper by Joshua C Hall of West Virginia University says about higher education in the United States: “current dysfunctional accreditation system... has led to increased costs and reduced innovation... (It) has evolved into a cartel caught between entrenching the status quo.’’ Accreditation and testing are two sides of the same coin. An institution is assessed in the accreditation process whereas a student is assessed in the examination process. The dysfunctional accreditation system means that there is also a dysfunctional examination system. There is less innovation in the educational institution. The students then will not be innovative either. The problems with such common tests are many.

The first problem is that it stifles innovation. Effort of the teachers becomes to train the students to crack the tests rather than to learn and innovate. There is a difference between the two. Innovation requires a free mind that grapples with new ideas and concepts. Common tests, on the other hand require the student to conform to the established norms of learning. Thus one often finds that toppers from universities languish in the small jobs, while laggards move ahead in their careers. One engineer working in an American Multinational Company told that his fellow student who topped the class in the school exams was nowadays selling dry fruits. He was a laggard in the school but has been successful in life. This happens because the school exams do not test the ability to think or innovate. Julia Black of the London School of Economics tells that one of the main demands presented by the students was “an end to the audit culture which makes academic output an object of assessment and measurement, which stifles free thinking and  impoverishes  innovation...’’

The second problem is of variation in the subjects and the curriculums of different universities. One student may have studied history while another may have studied chemistry. One university may give more emphasis on the theory of economics while another may give more emphasis on application of the theories. One solution to this problem mentioned by Paul E Barton of the Educational Testing Service is to create ‘‘some common core in the curriculum, without trying for total uniformity.” But this is easier said than done.

The solution to both these problems is to test the thinking capacities in such tests. Questions along the line of Sudoku do not require any particular type of education. Teachers can design questions which require original thinking, for example, one of the questions asked in this writer’s PhD exams at the University of Florida was : ‘‘What would be the nature of the US economy if there was no Rocky Mountain in the mid-West?” Such questions require original application of mind by the student. Answers cannot be found in any textbook. Second solution is to give out results in the form of percentiles rather than grades or numbers. All the candidates taking the exams can be ranked and results can be given in terms of the top “x” percent in which the particular student stands. In this case, one assesses how the particular student stands in comparison to others who took exam at the same time. There is no stigma of marks or division.

The third problem is of bureaucracy. The paper by Joshua C Hall of West Virginia University quoted above says that the accreditation system in the United States ‘‘has evolved into a cartel caught... entrenching the status quo.’’ The examination system created by the proposed National Testing Service could similarly get captured by the bureaucrats. The University Grants Commission is singlehandedly responsible for destroying Indian universities. The National Testing Service could go the same way. That would be disastrous. At present few universities are actually teaching despite the bureaucracy of the University Grants Commission. These too would have to stop teaching and pushing students towards cracking the NEETI. The solution to this is to have more than one testing agency. The ISO Certification is today provided by a number of agencies operating independently. Value of the ISO Certificate depends upon the credibility of the issuing agency. There are multiple private rating agencies like Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor. Similarly, the Government, instead of establishing one single NTS itself, can provide funds to, say, three or four private national testing agencies. The Government may regulate these testing agencies like the SEBI regulates the stock exchange. The students may choose the agency whose test to take. The decline of one agency will then be counteracted by other successful agencies. One bureaucracy will not let down the entire country.

The move of the Government to establish a National Testing Service is a step in the right direction. Need is to build in sufficient safeguards. The NTS must test only the thinking capacity of the students, it must give out results in the form of percentiles rather than grades or numbers, and there should be multiple testing agencies.

Vol. 49, No.49, Jun 11 - 17, 2017