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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Standardized testing and the question of academic freedom

One sign of the backwardness of educational policy in West Bengal is that, faced with very real problems of lack of faculty and infrastructure, scarcity of access to books, journals and laboratories, uneven teaching and learning levels, and asynchronous academic sessions, our planners are now proposing to level differences by introducing a new common entrance test at the graduate level. It should be evident to all of us that quite apart from the unsatisfactoriness of standardized testing as a means of assessing academic potential, this test will impose a new burden upon an already overburdened system without actually redressing problems of quality and access.

There has been very little real debate about this. The proposal was circulated to universities which, in the process of having their acts and statutes revised, lack decision-making bodies such as faculty councils and deans (dissolved by governmental fiat last year). In my own university, the proposal has been discussed in the boards of studies of individual departments, but it is proving difficult to forward a single unified view to the higher education council, precisely because the democratic structures of representation are in disarray. Nevertheless, there is strong opposition to the CET and disquiet about the future. It is important, therefore, to offer some views in the public domain.

First of all, we must separate two issues that have sometimes been confused. Opening up graduate admissions to students who have not been undergraduates of the same university is an entirely different matter from the proposed CET. I am personally in favour of making graduate admissions completely open. In the past, our state universities have been guilty of excluding virtually all but their own students (as in the case of Calcutta University) or admitting their own students regardless of graduation results (as in the case of Jadavpur University). This was a retrograde practice which diluted quality, induced complacence in the student body, and prevented student mobility. If our universities are to thrive and advance, they must reach out to a much larger student community, both national and international, and assess the potential of every applicant.

Many students will resent the removal of ‘privileges’ that they have come to associate with undergraduate admission itself. It should be remembered, however, that this privilege applied only to MA and MSc admissions, not to other graduate programmes. Historically, it was linked to the unjustifiable importance in our educational system of MA and MSc degrees, rigidly taught and examined courses unlike anything else in the world, yet a prerequisite for entry into university teaching or research, and a favoured tool in the hands of employers. Any reform of our educational system should re-assess the utility of these degrees in their present form and ask whether we should not rather have a four-year BA/BSc programme followed by much more specialized masters’ courses involving research training.

This is a separate matter, however. The proposed CET does not seek to reform anything. It will impose regulatory control over the process of graduate admission, taking away at least part of the universities’ right to choose their own students through their own admission procedures. In this it represents a very real encroachment on university autonomy. Even if one were to defend this in the interests of establishing a common standard for intending graduates, we need to ask exactly what a common standard is and how it might be applied. Unfortunately, the debate has to be conducted on an abstract plane, since we do not yet know what kind of examination the CET will be, what weightage will attach to it, how it will be administered, and so on. Yet such are the ways of policy-makers in our time that we may find ourselves committed to conducting next year’s admissions on the basis of this unknown factor.

Any examination of this kind must set out to test two components of undergraduate education, knowledge and skills. A parallel with which comparisons are being drawn is the United States of America’s graduate record examination or GRE. Graduates seeking admission to most US universities are required to take both the general and subject GRE, standardized tests which are conducted on fixed dates several times a year all over the world. The general test has verbal, quantitative and analytical components and is automatically adapted to the skill level of the candidate. The subject GRE (available in only eight subjects) is a multiple choice computer readable examination which tests both knowledge of the discipline and analytical applications. The examination is conducted by an ostensibly not-for-profit organization called the Educational Testing Service. Worldwide, it is administered by a company called Prometric, and there is a huge, enormously profitable industry of coaching centres and manuals. Test fees, between 150 and 200 dollars each, are extremely high. As one critic notes, “standardized testing is big business.”

Within the US and elsewhere, opinions are divided on the efficacy of tests such as SAT and GRE as measuring tools, on their bias against the poor and disadvantaged, and on their academic rationale. The mathematician and physicist, Banesh Hoffmann, who worked with Albert Einstein, attacked their format in his 1962 book, The Tyranny of Testing, and said in a later interview that “multiple choice tests penalize the deep student, dampen creativity, foster intellectual dishonesty, and undermine the very foundations of education”. But the GRE, an immensely complex international testing operation, may not actually be a good parallel to the proposed CET, though there are lessons to be learnt from critiques of standardized tests. India already has a variety of entrance tests for engineering and management courses at the undergraduate and masters’ levels, and the previous minister for human resource development, Kapil Sibal, had pressed for a single entrance test for engineering applicants instead of the IIT-JEE, AIEE, and so on. The graduate aptitude test in engineering or GATE and the common admission test or CAT for management schools are generally accepted all-India examinations.

What will the proposed CET, intended for the humanities, social sciences and sciences, test? Will it be subject-specific, or will it combine general, analytical, and subject-related components, like the state eligibility test — SET — and national eligibility test — NET — for college and university teachers? It should be noted that SET and NET are qualifying examinations, and scores are not recorded. How will a common minimum curriculum be fixed, and how will skills be assessed? Will the examination be conducted only in English, except in the case of language disciplines? When will it be scheduled, given that academic sessions across universities, and more importantly, the dates of final BA and BSc examinations, are not uniform? Who is to administer the test, who will set the questions and assess the answers? It is in this last context that fears of a computer-readable multiple choice question format have begun to circulate, since no test, whatever its pretence of objectivity, is actually objective. There will always be a preference for certain kinds of knowledge over others, and skills-assessment is bound to be subjective. Multiple choice questions cannot test deep thinking. Some students do well in examinations of this kind, others do not.

Even if these problems could be addressed, in the world that we currently inhabit they are compounded by others. CET scores can scarcely be used as the only admission criterion, since if thousands of students take a 100 or 200 mark test, many will be tied on the same score, or in the same percentile. (IIT-JEE and JEE follow a complicated ranking procedure that may not be viable here.) In that case other factors, such as graduation marks, performance in a university entrance test, an interview, or a personal statement, must be taken into account. With 100 per cent open entry, universities will need to devise such means of assessing potential candidates. If these, then, determine admission, what is the point of having CET at all?

It may be argued that the CET will set a common minimum level of attainment. If so, CET scores, like GRE scores for most US universities, should simply indicate ability or determine eligibility, not quantify the candidate’s ‘rank’ on an admission list. Also, to be credible in this way, the CET should be a national examination, its scores acceptable all over India and even internationally. But state policymakers appear intent on using it to bring their own universities into line, mandating the weightage to be given to CET scores, and taking away the powers of universities to select students through admission procedures suited to their own graduate programmes. Moreover, if undergraduates in their final year have also to study for the CET, it will spawn a huge coaching industry in addition to official administration costs, inflate the black economy, and disadvantage the poor. The tuition market will gain, everyone else will lose.

Sadly, this last phenomenon may be the one that is most visible in the coming months. Yet we need to think much more closely about the actual rationale of the examination, its purpose and its instruments. Have any of these been sufficiently thought through, in consultation with the universities which, for good or ill, actually teach graduates? In the current climate of suspicion, with an official policy of favours for a few at the expense of many, the CET seems just another means of reducing academic freedom.