Administering the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for 15 lakh candidates amid a pandemic is set to become the largest and most challenging exam management exercise for the Union government.
The National Testing Agency (NTA), The Indian Express has learnt, has been asked by the HRD Ministry to double the number of test centres to maintain social distancing during the exam.
Following government directions, the NTA is now planning to seat two candidates two metres apart, which, in other words, means it will need roughly 6,000 test centres, as opposed to the originally planned 3,000, to accommodate 15 lakh NEET aspirants. Till last year, two candidates were usually seated at a distance of one metre.
NEET is a pen-and-paper exam and the results are the sole criteria for admission to all undergraduate medical programmes in the country. Originally scheduled on May 3, NEET will now be conducted on July 26.
The number of test centres for NEET this year, a senior NTA officer told this newspaper, will be a record of sorts. “I doubt if a competitive exam has ever been held across so many centres in a single day,” the officer said on the condition of anonymity, adding “it will take us a month to identify an additional 3,000 test centres for NEET”.
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NTA usually prefers to make Kendriya Vidyalayas, CBSE-affiliated schools, engineering colleges and state government colleges (in that order of preference) as NEET test centres.
What makes conducting NEET amid the COVID-19 outbreak more challenging than other entrance exams is that it is a pen-and-paper test. “(A pen-and-paper test) means that I have only one question paper and I have to conduct it in a single shift in one day all over the country. Hence, I need to double the number of test centres to accomplish all of this and follow social distancing norms,” the NTA officer said.
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Unlike NEET, the NTA does not have to drastically increase the number of test centres for JEE (Main), which will be held from July 18 to 23. JEE (Main), which is the single-window test for admission to NITs, is held online and in many shifts over several days.
“We can accomplish social distancing by increasing the number of exam shifts and maybe adding another 150 to 200 new test centres (to the existing 600) for JEE (Main),” the officer added.
JEE Advanced, the entrance exam for admission to the IITs, is currently also conducted online in two parts (over two shifts) in a single day. However, IIT-Delhi is not sure if increasing the number of test centres or the number of shifts is an option for JEE Advanced.
“The 600 test centres selected by us for JEE Advanced are the best out of what is offered to us by TCS (Tata Consultancy Services). We are not sure if we can find more centres with suitable infrastructure,” JEE Chairman Sidharth Pandey told The Indian Express.
Asked if IITs were considering holding the JEE Advanced, like JEE Main, over a few days to ensure social distancing, he said, “The JEE Advanced novelty is that all aspirants appear for the same paper. I don’t think IITs will agree to set multiple papers to hold the exam over a few days.” Roughly two lakh candidates, who have cleared JEE Main, are permitted to sit for this exam.