Needful reforms in the JEE system after boom of coaching industry

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The admissions to elite technical colleges in India is done through entrance exams like JEE and NEET.  The intended purpose of these tests is to filter few thousand or less students out of lakhs who apply for admissions into leading schools like IITs, NITs and top medical schools. However, the pick of students from these exams and the level of challenge and difficulty has been rather concerning recently. Many “coaching centres” across the country have figured out ways to “coach” students for these exams. And in large fraction these coaching do not improve the general aptitude of the students but just prepare them for these test by providing them tricks to solve certain types of questions. 

The disadvantages of these practices are three-fold. They affect both who are being trained, people without access to coaching and the country at large. For those who are trainer, while it is true that they have an easier time making it to through the tests, there have been numerous reports of some of them who cannot cope up with the curriculum later, sometimes attributed to lack to understanding of basic concepts. For the people who cannot access coaching, the setbacks are obvious. It is almost certain there are many talented engineers and doctors who can come put of relatively less privileged sections of the society. For the county at large, the economy of the country depends on skilled labour. For a developing country like India, we need good quality engineers, doctors and scientists. This can be better done if we train the right people. I would like to emphasise that this is not a view against training in general. In my opinion good training is key developing scientific expertise. But the training should be aimed at developing skillsets rather than techniques of time management, educated guessing and short cut tricks that make the way through a test simple. And the skillsets should indeed be tested in an entrance test.

Of course the natural question that arises is if there is another way to do it. While it is true that error free IQ testing (By IQ, I refer to the combination of several aspects of general intelligence) is costly, needs controlled environment and can be greatly time consuming, many tests have come close to doing that by “standardisation”. For these tests coaching is essentially training to improving the skills of the individual. One popular example is a reasoning test known as SAT, from College Board used for admission to universities in the United States. Every question in the test has been statistically tested and correlated with each other to ensure a similar level of difficulty on each test. Well a test like SAT may not serve the present cause as we are more interested in scientific abilities of the students rather than logical reasoning itself. In this case a possible efficient method to pick students for an engineering institution may be to build tasks that will correlate with performance later as an engineer, or conversely the tasks which good engineers tend to answer better. As an example, in mathematics a good test may be ask about details of a certain proof like the assumptions behind it and in physics to ask about implications of a certain theory, questions which generally require the student understand the concepts rather than repeatedly practise a type of question. Similarly as a test of engineering aptitude a test to figure out efficient ways to perform a certain task can be conducted. With these arguments it is also almost clear that different disciplines of engineering need different tests. Also these tasks needs to be tested on students and engineers from various socio-economic backgrounds before the actual administration to the test takers and a consistent scale needs to built so that the same student, provided has the same aptitude will perform the same on two different tests. This procedure will help us make sure that teaching students tricks to crack the exams is not going to help. It will also give an opportunity for students without coaching to perform better if they have a natural ability and/or have worked on it by their own. 

To summarise, the tests need to correlate well with the skillsets the student will need to succeed as a professional later. This may require that the questions be standardised, correlated to the skillsets (measures the ability that it is supposed to measure) and also the performance is only affected by coaching to the extent coaching improves the skills of the student. In short the call is for a consistent procedure for standardisation of these tests so that the student community and the country at large can benefit from better professionals in the years to come. 


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