A new exam system has been approved for admission into the 16 prestigious IITs starting from next year, the 2013 batch. This breaks an elongated deadlock between the IIT Council and the HRD Minister Mr Kapil Sibal (Congress).
Despite Union Minister Kapil Sibal not attending the the meeting of the IIT Council held today, the directors of the IITs have reportedly decided on a compromise formula under which only the top 20 percent of students from each educational board will be allowed to give the preliminary IIT entrance exam.
Unfortunately, the news reports are not very good in explaining how this works. Let me give it a shot.
- The overarching rule is this : Only students who rank in the top 20% of their respective boards are eligible to even enter the IIT.
- There will be two exams after the board exams, called the ‘main‘ and ‘advanced‘.
- All students can write the ‘main’ exam. Presumably used for NIT.
- Only the top 50,000 ranks of the main exam (or as per some reports 1,50,000) can write the ‘advanced’ exam.
- The merit list is prepared based on the advanced exam only. After the merit list is prepared those students did not rank in the top 20% of their respective boards are kicked out (even if the student got a ‘advanced’ rank of 1)
This is the most bizarre selection machine ever to be designed in my opinion. It will fail to solve any of the problems which necessitated such tinkering in the first place. Not satisfied with being merely useless, it will introduce massive social problems as you will see in the rest of this post.
Boards and percentiles
Today there are about 40-50 different boards in India. I dont know of any board that states a percentile score. Note that a percentile is nothing but a rank. This necessitates a massive change in state board infrastructure and some states like Tamilnadu are sure to oppose giving a rank to each student. It is supremely ironic that the HRD Ministry which trumpets the grading system on the logic that a student scoring 91 is the same as student scoring 99 – is eager to introduce a percentile system ( to 8 decimal places no less) to even be eligible to take a shot. This is beyond cruel if you factor in rampant grade inflation.
Also keep in mind there is no underlying sanctity behind the canonical cutoff percentile of 80%. Tomorrow someone could change it to 90%, 95% and one would have no grounds to either support or oppose the move.
Not an open exam anymore
Most if not all selection processes in India stipulate a nominal minimum qualification mark followed by open exams (which can be multi paper). I use “open exam” in the sense that any Indian student who meets minimum qualifications gets to take a shot. This new proposal turns the concept of open exams on its head. This exam unfairly and in my view unconstitutionally excludes students not on grounds of minimum qualification but on performance of others. For even trying to access a publicly funded resource.
Blow to the needy
Like all schemes designed by anointed intellectuals in India, this one robs the very people it pretends to help. It is so embarrassingly easy to prove this. You can substitute the word “Rural” for your favourite victim group.
- Rural can throw up more in the top 20% in boards
- Rural will fail to rank well in IIT Advanced without coaching
- So Urban who access coaching and pull into top 20% (not that hard) can absolutely dominate the rankings because if any rural student who by chance makes it will rank lower.
- Since the advanced exam is the sole criteria it is a massive win for Urban.
The fallacy of the advanced exam
I was initially confused about this. Why would a student who knew that he was not in the top 20% even bother to write the advanced exam ? I talked to a parent who told me that it is a matter of exam dates. Many boards do not announce the results until after the entrance exam season. With this new harebrained scheme, students will have to write the exams and pay exam fees knowing they can be made retroactively ineligible. Even if they top the advanced exam, the scores in which are ironically the sole basis for the merit list. To borrow a phrase from a media personality. Wah !!
The quota problem
Last but not least, I am amazed that such concentrated brain power in one room could ignore the impact of percentile system on reservation.
If you select the top 20% ranks, will you not disqualify a massive chunk of SC/ST/OBC from the colleges ? If you raise this pertinent point, the smart ass answer would be a swift “Fine, lets prepare different percentile lists for each community”. It appears we make laws by thinking on our feet as and when anomalies crop up. Suddenly each student has to be issued two percentile marks – his overall percentile and his community percentile. How many boards will want to do this ? If you end up doing this, you still need to adjust for the relative percentages of quota due to the fact that reserved candidates can also take open seats. The whole system needs a supercomputer (CDAC project?) to work.
Even if you ended up issuing a community wise percentile, the effect on meritorious open category will be nothing short of tragic. A student of community X might be studying in IIT with 75% in board exam but a student of community Y will be debarred from even appearing despite scoring 95%. Once again note that it is not a matter of getting a lesser course, but one of outright disqualification to even try. More fuel for communal heartburn, more demands for reclassification and sub quotas, caste and religious divides and blockades.
This is what the government is doing to the country as the media sleeps.
Why you need to pay attention to the dangers of the Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE)
In a far reaching move the Congress led UPA government replaced the tried and tested exam system in CBSE schools with something called Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation (CCE). The purported idea to de-stress the students and to measure all aspects of a childs development.
As per the CCE, students are evaluated through Formative Assessments (FA) that is conducted throughout each term, and Summative Assessments (SA) carried out at the end of a particular term. Scholastic areas covering all academic subjects and non-scholastic areas, including life skills, arts and sports will be considered in the evaluation. While the FA will be carried out by the teacher for class participation, projects and discussions, SA will largely be done through a paper-pen test. The FAs (accounting for 40 marks) and SAs (for 60 marks) thrice, covering three terms and the cumulative scores would be converted to grades, on a 10-point scale.
Here is a quick summary :
- Students evaluated on multiple “personality” criteria continuously for 40%
- The written tests (not comprehensive exams) that make up the remaining 60% are set and evaluated by the school
- No standardized exams of any kind till Std XII
- A student has the option of taking a standardized exam in Class X – but only if he/she wants to migrate to another board.
Lets list out the key issues that arise out of such a system:
- Does the continuous evaluation make sense at all, esp with children ?
- Does it de-motivate achievers, if 91% and 100% get the same grade ?
- What impact does measuring extra curricular talent have on the poor ?
- How will you compare schools if there are no standardized tests ?
- What impact will grade inflation have on education and students?
- Does this loosening impact our dreams of becoming a knowledge economy ?
Lets see how this system works and quickly hit up on each of the above issues. Once again, ask yourself why NONE of the Indian media thought it fit to opine on this law that impacts every school going child.
How does it really work ?
Firstly, it is no mean feat to devise a system that can objectively evaluate millions of students uniformly on personality traits. What do teachers exactly observe in kids and how can they possibly assign a metric to behaviour ? Lets start off by looking at official documents. These are excerpts from the CCE guidelines issued to teachers for Class IX and X taken from here (the CBSE website). This section talks about observing behaviour in the “Life Skills” category, one of the dozen personality areas.
Constant evaluation of “life skills (page 49 inside Inner_Pages_IX_X.pdf)
Day to day observation: Please keep ‘a watchful eye’ on your student, whenever you notice a significant behaviour that may shed light on any one of the fifty (50) descriptors under the 10 domains. Record it in your diary. It should not be time bound; it should be as and when such a thing happens. Here are a few examples:
- Rohan shared his tiffin with his friends today.
- Jiten gulped his tiffin quickly and then looked at others.
- Though Sara did not figure in the list of awardees, she was all smiles and helped me in organizing the event.
- George visited his sick classmate at home and briefed him about the home work.
- Sarbari differed with my viewpoint; she argued but never got irritated; but Shanti got angry because Sarbari was arguing with me.
- Mohammad connected the computer to the LCD projector, set the screen so proficiently that I could use it in the classroom.
While you rate such behaviour, please remember ‘5’ stands for desirable behaviour and less than ‘1’ for the undesirable ones. For example in the above case Sarbari gets ‘5’, but Shanti gets ‘2’ or ‘1’. Although you would observe on a day to day basis and record, you would only accumulate it at the end of the term and then convert into a grade. All these statements reveal certain styles of behaviour of a student, e.g. effective communication of Sarbari, excellent interpersonal skills exhibited by Mohammad and Sara’s ability to manage her emotions, etc.
In other words, its like having a video camera on all students at all time. Discrete incidents are noted down and sought to be either penalized or rewarded. I am not an expert on pedagogy but this sets off alarm bells . Whatever happened to kids will be kids. If Jiten gulped his tiffin or pulled Rita’s hair should have no impact on his grades. Of course teachers must pay attention to disturbing behaviour and escalate to parents if required. But they have as much right to score it on a desirability matrix as the students have to score the teachers on one.
It is also impossible for teachers to avoid allegation of bias. The government’s canned response to such things is always, “Arrey baba, so and so official will make random checks and penalize so and so. Whats your problem?“. Exactly how this has worked is anyone’s guess. Another grand anomaly is, in a society divided along communal lines by the UPA government , it is next to impossible to ignore either the teachers or the students affiliation.
Lets quickly look at another example.
Collection of detailed anecdotal records (page 91 )
The teacher records anecdotes of students and makes his/her own comments against if they are worthy. This becomes part of a child’s portfolio, and presumably the teachers too. Here is an illustration from the guidebook.
When I walked into the class, the students greeted me. All of them were in a joyful mood and did not want to study. I agreed. I divided them into groups and asked them to play games in groups. Suddenly, I noticed that Shivang was studying a Science book and was totally engrossed in his studies. I became very curious and asked,” Why don’t you play games with your friends?” Shivang replied, “I do not enjoy playing these games. I enjoy reading my Science books.”
Shivang is an intelligent boy who has got a scientific temper but lacks social skills. He does not like to interact with others. He prefers to study Science in depth and thinks a lot.
Unless the event indicates a major mental or physiological problem, the fact that teachers can not only make such remarks but enter them into a permanent record is alarming. Even the above normative example is silly – Shivang said he doesnt enjoy playing these games, maybe he likes playing some other games and the teachers remark about his lacking social skills is bollocks. The problem is the child has no appeal against it.
Standardized tests are bad ? Who said that ?
It is a fact that quality of schools and socio economic status of students vary dramatically in India. What works in Norway or Australia will not work here. This diversity makes evaluation of co-curricular scholastic ability remarkably difficult. It may appear that lower strata will excel in sports and make up for lack of opportunity in curricular resources. This is a rooted in a fallacy. Competitive sports requires even more resources than studies. How many poor people can serve a tennis ball ? Play a piano ? Launch into a debate ? These are the exact skills CCE plans to assign a metric to. Those privileged will access coaching outside the school but those who cant, wont. You can construct patchwork arguments like “fine lets exclude tennis”, which only make my point stronger.
The anonymity offered by standardized tests is what the poor want and love.
Yes the standardized test is the ultimate equalizer. No face control. Just you, your hard work, a random number , and the question paper. For that moment, for many the first moment; your caste, community, region counts for nothing. Negative or Positive. This is what Mohammed Ismat of Manipur, the CBSE topper loves ; what if he was evaluated for personality traits ? For team work ?
Comparison of school and teacher performance
We mouth off catchy slogans imported from the west – such as “No child left behind” – but only the slogan is imported the substance is conveniently ignored. The fact that standardized testing is the cornerstone of America’s NCLB program is ignored. The US government uses the results of these tests to monitor school performance. These test results are later used to allocate funds, teacher training, and so forth. Without standardized tests , all the way till Class XII the Indian government has no way to tell if government schools are working. Internal grades and CCE dont throw up any meaningful data.
The best way to make everyone happy is to simply move the mean scores toward the top. This is called the ‘bunching at the top phenomenon’ I have talked about it in the past on this blog. Apropos to RTE, I found an excellent piece online as it applies to Indian schools post UPA rules. Data from 2011.
New records were also set in CBSE’s more difficult class XII school-leaving examination. A new high of 81.71 pass percentage was recorded — a modest 1.84 percent improvement over last year. But the number of high performers in the 90 percent-plus category swelled by 30 percent to 21,665 from 16,563 last year. The number of students scoring 95 percent and above also reached a new high — almost doubling to 2,097 from 1,202 in 2010. Little wonder, good cheer and euphoria all around.
Grade inflation is already rampant in state board schools. With Sibal’s decreasing emphasis on competitive exams in favour of ‘holistic evaluation’ one can expect a spiral of competitive grade inflation among various state education boards. After all, every state wants to get in as many of their students as possible into centrally funded universities.
All together now
What sucks about India is that we arent endowed with oil or rare earths. So if you wanted to lift a billion folks out of 3rd worldhood, you need to work on it. Our hope lies in building a knowledge economy, which calls for a high scholastic achievement of students. Not only must high standards prevail but whatever solution we come up with must scale well. Towards this end, we need to do the exact opposite of what the RTE and CCE propose. Toughen standards, make schools accessible by state investment not by seeking charity or punishing private players. A tough regime of standardized tests even in every class is of utmost importance. It gives a concrete goal towards which teachers can work to, and a yardstick to measure teacher and school performance.
I am afraid the CCE provisions are going to build a nation of underachievers, barely ready for college, unemployable graduates, and a swathe of disillusioned guilt ridden brilliant kids who will be checked for social likability. We will increasingly view islands of excellence in India with suspicion while admiring Berkeley and Johns Hopkins.
We are truly destroying our one shot at escaping third world status.