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Thursday, April 22, 2004

Recently, in May, an ‘entrance examination’ of massive proportions was held in our democracy.  The candidates’ performance within the span of just a few hours decides his/her future and career.  The doors to their dreams, ambitions and vision are opened only to those hopeful candidates who manage to qualify in this exam.  The large numbers of candidates who do not succeed are forced to wait for their next chance.   Without any doubt, this ‘entrance exam’ is probably one of the toughest and most demanding in the entire world.

By now, if you are thinking about the recently-concluded elections, you are not mistaken.  But, I had something more academic in mind:  EAMCET.  This year there were nearly 1.6 lakh applicants for the EAMCET, who were dreaming of becoming an engineer or a doctor.   A majority of the students who appeared for that entrance examination on May 6 had put in months, even years, of hard work and labour into their preparation.  Most of them endure a tough regime of rigorous coaching at various centers and ‘institutes’ that have proliferated across the state.   If the students are under tremendous pressure to do well in these entrance tests, their parents are not doing any better!  Parents of Intermediate and ‘Plus Two’ children often face the most difficult part of their entire parenting lives.  In the run up to these entrance exams, most parents not only have to shell out their hard-earned money but also lose sleep and peace of mind. All because the entrance exams are a ‘make or break’ test.

It is remarkable that we, in India and especially our state, adopt these common entrance tests which are used as the only basis for selecting or rejecting a particular candidate.  In other words, these entrance examinations are ‘one-point admission processes’ where the students’ entire academic and professional career is decided within a span of a few hours.  If an otherwise capable, motivated and deserving student does not perform well on a given day and time (both of which are not of her/his choosing) then she/he will not get an opportunity to pursue their dreams.  The only option is to sit out for one year and go through the same procedure.

Japan and China are reportedly some of the very few countries in this world that follow a similar pattern of common entrance examination for admission into their universities.  For instance, in 2002, nearly 52.7 lakh Chinese high school graduates quietly took their University Entrance Examination.  This entrance exam is considered the most important one in a Chinese student’s life (exactly like over here), who has to compete even for tuition scholarships (unlike in our state).

In the rest of the world, especially the western and American part of it, universities select their students based on a range of criteria.   There is no single ‘entrance examination’; a student’s suitability for a particular university program is evaluated based on various factors including creative thinking, authentic problem solving skills and communication abilities.  There is considerably less emphasis on rote-learning of unrelated facts and memorization of techniques or ‘short-cuts.’ I have to emphasize that the American admission procedures have their own drawbacks.   However, they consistently provide genuine opportunities for students to pursue their dream careers at world-class universities.  Simultaneously, they also provide the universities an opportunity to select only the truly motivated and capable student for a particular graduation program.    This convergence of interests and opportunities between the motivated student and the university is one of the key factors behind the US academia being able to enrol the best of the best candidates who later turn out to become highly productive professionals.

Unfortunately, the authorities who conduct our entrance examinations are so caught-up with the logistics that they cannot find the necessary resources to evolve a more rational and appropriate student selection procedure.  For instance, conducting an EAMCET exam without any leaks is still considered an achievement by the authorities!  Not surprisingly, the students come somewhere down in the priority list.

While continuing to improve the logistics, the authorities should also give priority to evolving a selection procedure that does more justice to the student’s natural skills.   Such a structured and scientific selection process must necessarily go beyond a three-hour exam – it should be able to tap into the young candidates’ nascent engineering and doctoral skills as well as analytical and communication abilities.   At the same time, it should be designed and held in such a way that the student’s entire career and future is not held ransom to a few hours, on some day imposed by the authorities.   The entire exercise should be able to bring out the best in the students.   And that is the real test of any Selection Test.

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