College admissions need smarter qualifying examinations

28 Jun
College and university admissions have created a furore again this year with Delhi University colleges requiring students to have near perfect marks (99.25%) which is actually better than the requirement last year of 100% in one college (albeit a requirement for science students seeking entry into a commerce undergraduate degree).

This is not just about rising standards – though one must truly appreciate the dedicated efforts of students to maximise their grades. Those who do achieve these high levels of marks do so with unprecedented levels of focus and hard work. Some may also call this level of effort super-human. Their success is to their credit, of course. They crack open a system by mastering its patterns and its content, and this in itself is an amazing life lesson in achieving goals.

For those who miss it by just a whisker, or even a tail – often the effort, training and mentoring has been of the same level. They too are successes – or would have been if our higher education system was less ruthless in its competitiveness. The paucity of good education options is shown up each year in the disappointment faced by our brilliant and hardworking young people – who are then forced to seek less than mediocre options either in India or abroad.

It is of course true that each of us wants to join the best college – and equally true that everybody cannot. The university and its colleges must draw the line somewhere – and they do so based on the applications they receive. It is a simple numbers exercise for them – they select the best they can get based on the results supplied to them. This is fair competition – survival of the fittest.

However survival of the fittest is not necessarily a fair game at all. It feels more unfair to those who did marginally less well and were made to feel like failures. They need other excellent options to pursue that lead to equally fruitful careers, and they need to be able to do so with dignity. In a perfect world, students would be able to follow their interests, grow into more mature learners in the first year of higher education and then even switch courses in order to fulfill their true potential. That utopia is at least a few years away. Till then, we must, as a nation, as parents, as teachers and policy makers ensure that good quality options are available to our youth.

At the same time, there is certainly a problem that needs to be solved – the high marks are unlikely to happen in a well designed system that needs to both qualify and differentiate. Grade inflation has been a worry, fueled not only by easier examinations and more limited curricula but also by the fact that examinations have fairly predictable patterns and merely test for knowledge. The design of examinations at the Class 12 level (age 16+) needs to be more intelligent and complex – and reasonably unpredictable.

The examination design needs to have two clear goals – one: to pass the largest number of competent students. Do not punish the mediocre, make it easy for them to qualify by achieving the pass grade, even a respectable pass grade. At the same time, since the results of this examination are going to be used in various competitive situations, the exam design must include an element of differentiation – with only those who are genuinely knowledgeable and passionate about a subject achieving the highest grade. Normally, different students will thus do well in different subjects – a child cannot be passionate about everything.

The examinations also need to be designed to test more than memory. At the age of 17 or 18, when most students take these examinations, the ability to think independently, analyse and solve problems must be tested via the examination. Good design of such an examination will include questions that map real life where there are no perfect answers. This is especially important as this examination must test and build a base for those who are not traditionally academic and will follow a vocational or professional path. Increasing the importance of application of self and knowledge at this stage will also encourage better teaching and learning in the last years of school.  Since there are no perfect answers to most real life problems, the grades will reflect that – neatly avoiding the bunching up of marks at near perfect levels. Do we lose objectivity and defensibility in marking when we design exams to test other skills? Certainly we do – and again the solution lies in well trained examiners who are supported by excellent marking criteria that ensure fairness for all.

Currently, our students are struggling to differentiate themselves from others while conforming to patterns with no apparent path available to them. Differentiation is a function of the examination itself and the responsibility of an examination system. It is unfair to build and implement an examination system that transfers this burden on to the student.

This was published in the Times of India Blogs on June 26, 2012 linked here.



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