Governments have been doing their best to fight the battle against the deadly coronavirus. But all efforts put up by them seem to be frustrating due to the relentlessness of the pandemic. The surge in the number of new cases and deaths per day in the country is more than the number of cases anywhere in the world. The doubling rate has surpassed the worst affected countries in the world. The most worrying thing is that the spike is now more pronounced in rural areas where the health infrastructure is extremely sub-optimal.
It is learnt that some of the countries like New Zealand and South Korea, which had done exceptionally well in containing the spread of the deadly virus, are now facing the second wave. They have been compelled to scale up their stringent measures. There are also reports of fresh outbreaks even in educational institutions which were thrown open in some parts of the Western world. Under the circumstances, we need to take a pragmatic view to resolve the standoff on the issue of conducting both the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).
There are two contrasting perspectives put forward, one arguing in favour of conducting the JEE and the NEET in September and another in support of postponing it further. Both the factions are trying to justify their stand. One argues that further postponement of the examination will not only mean the loss of an academic year but also of a professionally trained workforce with its long-lasting adverse impact on the economy. They say that the gap year will also have its own consequences due to non-utilization of human and physical resources. It is also argued that most of the prospective students do not want to be compelled to waste their preparation nor to harden their competition with the fresh graduates of the next year. They are of the view that it is the nonserious candidates who have been campaigning for the postponement of the examination. They also tend to believe that the Covid-19 fear is wholly unjustified when the testing agency has come up with stringent guidelines to ensure the implementation of the Standard Operating Procedure during pre-conduct and conduct of the examination.
On the other side are the people, including some state governments, who think that the authorities are not looking into the physical and social realities created by the deadly pandemic with no sign of any respite. Parents are extremely scared by the idea of sending children to examination centres because of this horrendous disease with a lurking possibility of inflicting permanent damage to vital organs. Besides, they are advancing a plethora of other valid reasons like transportation of children from far-off places to the centres in the absence of public transport, and that too when parts of the country are inundated due to incessant rains. It is a double whammy for those living in the countryside who cannot afford to hire private transport to reach a distance of two to three hundred miles. With psychological fear coupled with financial constraints, one cannot expect any reasonable level of performance from the students even in an ordinary examination, let alone in high stakes examinations like the JEE & NEET.
The postponement of these examinations by a couple of weeks need not be considered a misplaced option as the movement of hundreds of thousands of students under the circumstances might turn out to be a superspreading exercise. It is not going to be risky only for the students but also for many others whom they would pass by during and after travel, including members of their family. Postponement of examination would only warrant a little adjustment of the current academic calendar which is not so big a deal in this unusual crisis. It would mean a little delay in the start of classes of the new batch without any bearing on the commencement of the ongoing batches. The loss of time for the new batch could be compensated either by marginally increasing the teaching hours or by curtailing vacation periods by a couple of days. This little concession will provide huge reliefs to already distressed parents and students. Hopefully, the flood situation might also improve in a couple of more days and the herd immunity which appears to be showing upward trends might further accelerate. By that time the subsequent process of unlocking will also help students to have easy access to public transport.
There could be yet another solution to the problem based on a scientific rationale used earlier. This country is known to have produced outstanding civil servants, engineers and doctors even prior to the introduction of entrance examinations. Seats in all the universities and premier institutions were allocated on the basis of the exam results from the States and Central Boards of school education. It may be mentioned that IIT, Kharagpur admitted students on the basis of the Boards’ results for about eight long years. BITS, Pilani, which is one of the most premier institutions, also continued to admit students on the basis of Boards’ results until very recently. They had designed their own method of computing the normalized aggregate percentage for the purpose of allocating seats to students graduating from various Boards.
It is a time-tested process of normalisation that allows adjustment of scores measured on different scales by different Boards. It has been proven beyond doubt that academic attainment, among others, is quite a reliable measure of predicting the future performance of the candidates. Since Board examinations capture academic attainments with reference to specified learning outcomes, their marks can be used safely for predicting the future performance of prospective candidates. This argument stands validated by a study conducted in IIT Bombay itself wherein the investigator found out a greater degree of correlation between IIT semesters’ performances and Board examination marks in comparison with entrance examinations. Thus, the application of simple statistical methods, and not the computation of sophisticated scores, can help normalise the Boards’ scores, which can be safely used as a creditable alternative for the purpose of allocating seats in medical and engineering programmes. This can avert the requirement of holding entrance examinations in the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic.
One may look at issues like this from multiple perspectives but humanity must always remain an overriding consideration since the well-being of the individual is the core goal of education. Such contentious issues need to be resolved by the syndicate of academia in the light of available evidencebased assessment methods after ensuring their administrative feasibility under the prevailing circumstances.
The writer is former Chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.