Reforms in IIT entrance exam make schools central to the learning process
The reforms in the entrance examination for the IITs are welcome because they introduce board marks as a meaningful input in the selection process. For years,the IIT-JEE system has been considering how to factor in board results. The first step,taken in 2006,was to require students to get at least 60 per cent in board exams,but this had little impact,since in this age of marks inflation it was a very low cut-off. Attempts to increase the cut-off to 80 per cent in 2009 met with stiff resistance and had to be abandoned.
All these years,the school system has been neglected by bright students who are sent away to coaching institutes. As a result,schooling has suffered. The reform is a small step towards making the school system central to a students learning experience.
For years,I have seen a tussle between coaching institutes and the IIT faculty that sets the question papers for the JEE. Most of the time,the coaching institutes have come out on top in these tussles. This is not surprising as the members of the IIT faculty who set the question papers have no experience teaching in schools and so papers tend to get tougher every year. Errors in questions have also become common.
I support the reforms because I have found the IIT-JEE system slow to respond to changes because of the way the organisation of the JEE shifts from one IIT to another every year. After the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE) was introduced in 2002,the IIT system was following the AIEEEs innovations. Online application,multiple rounds of admissions and online counselling are some of the features that the IIT system adopted from the AIEEE. Further,the increase in the number of students had stretched the IIT system,which was finding it difficult to handle the growing size.
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Also,in the new format,allocations of seats for the NITs and the IITs will be done together. This is a good step because many seats in the IITs remain vacant as students opt for a branch of their choice in an NIT,giving up the IIT seat they had got in a branch and an institute low in their priority. After the IITs introduced multiple rounds of admissions,the seat allocation for NITs too was affected when students got IIT seats in later rounds of allocation. A common examination also sends a message to society that an NIT education is as valuable as an IIT education. It can only help the brand name of NITs and this in turn will help ease the pressure on IIT admissions.
As an IITian and an IIT director,I am confident of the quality of the IIT system,and am not afraid of any dilution of standards of incoming students. Bright students will continue to enter the IITs even after these reforms. I confess that I am unable to judge what the best method for admissions is as there are many factors at play,some in contradiction with others.
Can the specific changes be justified? First of all,the IITs have a different examination format from the NITs due to the opposition the original proposal faced from a section of IIT faculty and alumni. The NITs will now be following the original proposal and will include board marks in the final ranking process. The IITs,on the other hand,will use board marks only in screening students. The distrust of the school boards system shown by a section of the IIT faculty and alumni has no firm basis,and the objections have been mainly anecdotal.
The method of normalisation of board marks has not been understood by many. It equates the rank a student gets in her board to the rank another gets in his board (the ranks are moderated by the sizes of the boards). With ranks based on marking out of 100,the difference between someone who comes first and one who is ranked 6,000 in,say,the CBSE,is only about two marks. A 40 per cent weightage means an advantage of just 0.8 marks. The lower-ranked student has an excellent chance of making up this deficit in the Mains and Advanced exams. At the same time,every student will strive to get as high a rank as possible,because every fraction will be significant in deciding the institute and the branch a student gets. Therefore,the scheme ensures that everyone tries to do their best in the boards,but those who falter live to fight another day. Students do not have to be unduly worried. They have to do reasonably well in their boards,and the Mains and Advanced tests are essentially the erstwhile AIEEE and IIT-JEE examinations. The only difference now is that the syllabus will be the same for both the tests.
What will be the impact on coaching? In the short term,coaching institutes are likely to make a killing as they will sell tuition for boards,Mains and Advanced. Hopefully,in the medium and long term,all coaching will happen in one place in the school where a student is enrolled. Whether coaching institutes tie up with schools or get licences to become schools does not matter. Schools will be where all the learning will take place.
The writer is director,IIT Guwahati