Almost all the central level examinations, barring the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), have now moved towards a computer-based test (CBT) format. The shift has been faster after the launch of the National Testing Agency (NTA). This has changed the exam pattern from a descriptive to a multiple-choice question (MCQ) format. However, scholars and students have opposed this development, as they believe the new format cannot assess students holistically.
Students from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have been among the most vocal in opposing this trend. Sarika Chaudhary, vice president, JNU Student Union (JNUSU) stated, “MCQ or objective-type questions are not the right way to judge a student’s capability. While in social sciences, there is no one correct option and the perspective and thought process of the student matters, in science-related courses too, MCQs eliminate the steps-wise marking that incentivises conceptual clarity.”
Raj Singh, vice-chancellor, Ansal University believes that the MCQ-based tests should be treated only as a screening test as they have their limitations. “Subject boundaries are no longer watertight and new-age courses such as artificial intelligence, robotics, are not limited to any one discipline. The assessment of students should also be holistic and closer to real-life, rather than limited to a particular subject. Marks, unfortunately, are not the sole criterion; we need to have a holistic assessment where sensitivity, aptitude, etc, are the core criteria,” explained Singh. “The MCQ is not enough to gauge everything that we need in a student. It has its limitations and every institute and university should have their own process to test other parameters, which these exams tend to skip, until we have a technology or tests which can holistically access students.”
Do not replicate JEE-like format
Meanwhile, the technology for holistic assessment is available in India, but not adopted in most exams due to ‘lack of awareness’ and ‘limited market demand’. Remarks Vineet Joshi, director-general, National Testing Agency (NTA), “NTA only conducts tests on behalf of others and the format is decided by the institute concerned. While we can conduct subjective exams too, the institutes ask for MCQ-based only. Perhaps, this is because of the perception that more syllabus can be covered in less time through the objective-type format than subjective.”
The market demand may lean towards MCQ-based formats also because of academicians attempting to replicate the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), held for selecting engineering aspirants in B.Tech/ B.E courses. “It is wrong to replicate a JEE-like format for every exam. It is essential to have a combination of question types to test the cognitive abilities and behavioural assessment,” says Sujatha Kumaraswamy, head – delivery, compliance and government sales, MeritTrac, a service provider which conducts exams online for several universities and recruiters across India.
She adds, “We are currently giving students standardised testing where everyone gets a similar test. The world is moving towards adaptive questions where the exam is started at the same level but depending upon how a candidate performs, the difficulty level of question is changed. This provides us a true assessment of the candidate. GMAT conducts such tests; however, to implement this format, we need much larger question bank.”
Venguswamy Ramaswamy, Global Head, TCS iON believes that moving from pen-and-paper to online testing should be accompanied by a shift in quality as well. TCS iON conducts several recruitments as well as college entrance exams in India, many in collaboration with government bodies.
“The largest volume of CBT usage is in the pre-admissions and pre-recruitment competitive testing domain, where the MCQ format is ideal and has, therefore, become a norm. Currently, the migration of tests from paper-pencil mode to CBT platform is not accompanied by any change in the format of the test itself. There is hardly any evidence of leveraging of CBT to improve the quality of testing through innovative solutions in test administration and by deploying better analytics,” said Ramaswamy.
Economic feasibility of the online testing
While advanced technology might assess students properly, it requires more manpower and better connectivity, which India lacks. Many institutes have not shifted to the online model, considering it to be more expensive than the pen and paper mode. Kumaraswamy claims that people are still waiting to see how the adoption pans out, before but the trend is going to change eventually.
“The colleges will have to invest in a computer lab where the exam needs to be conducted. The additional cost of connectivity and strong network will be 20-25 per cent. However, they will also save on printing, logistics, reverse logistics, evaluation, etc, which in the long run makes the entire process more profitable,” she remarked.
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Lack of infrastructure
“Lack of funds is not as serious a deterrent for the adoption of CBTs as the lack of infrastructure,” said Venguswamy Ramaswamy, Global Head, TCS iON. He explained that improving the availability of high-quality physical infrastructure for testing, especially in the northern and eastern belts of the country, is a prerequisite. “For largescale competitive tests, infrastructure with respect to high-quality testing labs is a problem, both in terms of absolute availability and of geographical spread,” he remarked.
Are online exams disadvantageous to rural India?
Online exams are largely seen disadvantageous for students from rural areas who do not have as much access to a computer as those from urban India. Commenting on this, DG NTA said, “To ensure proper access to students, we have over 4,000 test practice centres across the country with a focus on remote areas, where any aspirant can walk in to. We have lakhs of aspirants appearing for tests for almost every exam. Further, the number of candidates in these exams are the same, if not more.”
The number of students, however, does not mean the same access to all, according to Chaudhary. “Technological imposition is somehow a sudden massive explosion. Often, students try to block a seat, but not being tech-savvy, they are unable to do so. They have given the exam but are not very comfortable appearing for it. First, we need to make sure every school has a computer lab, with good faculty available, so that we can reach the stage of maximum inclusion.”
It’s also noteworthy that, while online exams were introduced as a more secure version of paper-pen-based tests, there have been several instances of leaks in online exams as well including SSC CGL leak, several cancellations of RRB recruitment tests due to technical glitches.
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