CET or Board Exams, India’s Public Examination System Remains Unfair

Most public examinations in India serve the function of elimination, not selection.

5 min read

The Central Universities Common Entrance Test (CUCET) for admission to central universities is in news again as the University Grants Commission recently announced CUCET to be held across central universities in India from the session 2022 to 2023. The scores of this test are to be used for admissions to undergraduate and postgraduate courses, a function which at present is performed by Class 12 marks. Since this provision was highlighted in the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020, to be implemented by the National Testing Agency (NTA), it was to be regarded with utmost sincerity. Launched in 2010, the number of universities participating in CUCET has been sharply increasing.

Assessment of students’ learning has always enjoyed overwhelming importance in students’ lives. Therefore, it also becomes an issue of concern among teachers, parents, schools and even society at large.

To substantiate my argument, we simply need to remember the collective hysteria around three different occasions in India: the announcement of the Annual Status of Education Report around January every year, which laments poor learning levels of children studying in rural India, the announcement of Board exam results, and the admission to colleges in Delhi University and the insane cut-off percentages.

These are times when the entire country is gripped by a strange anxiety over students’ performance in exams.


A Common Exam for 45 Central Universities

One needs to understand what it is about assessment that is so important or indispensable. Assessment broadly can be categorised into four types:

  • Internal exams, which test students’ learning to get a sense of where they are on the learning curve and how they can be supported further. These are restricted to the classroom, where teachers assess students taught by them.

  • Assessments at the end of one’s schooling, more like exit exams, which are often used to award (promote) and penalise (detain) students. Most universities offering generic undergraduate or postgraduate programmes typically rely on the marks scored by students in board examinations.

  • Large-scale assessment surveys that test the acquisition of foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, which have gained currency in recent times, such as ASER and NAS (National Achievement Survey), which are conducted by external agencies.

  • Entrance exams, which are specially designed for colleges, universities and specialised programmes like engineering, medical etc. The question papers are formulated according to their needs and what they are looking for in a student.

What is being proposed now is a common exam for admission to 45 central universities, irrespective of which courses they are offering. Though there is no clarity about the pattern of examination, it is being reported that in all probability, it will be in two parts. Section A will be a Common Aptitude Test comprising 50 questions, while section B will be a domain-specific test comprising 30 questions each from a chosen combination of subjects.

The rationale provided by the NEP for CUCET it is that it will test students’ conceptual understanding and ability to apply knowledge and will also eliminate the need for taking coaching for these exams.

It is also being stated that the standardisation of such an exam will lessen the burden on resources both human and financial and reduce stress on students, universities and colleges and the entire paraphernalia associated with conducting exams.

Social Inequality is India's Defining Characteristic

There are arguments on both sides praising or critiquing these exams. In all fairness, one will have to collect systematic data from students, college administration on both systems (Board exam scores and the common entrance exam score) to compare the strengths and limitations of both, and to ascertain the claims made about CET. One can perhaps say with some amount of clarity that these exams are likely to reduce pressure caused due to Board exams. But even though there will be changes in both modes of assessment, there will still be some amount of underlying continuity.

To make sense of the above statement, one must understand the function that such public exams (either Board or entrance exams) play in a stratified society. In the process, I might be busting a few myths around examination. India is not only a diverse society, but also stratified, with social inequality being its defining characteristic.

Any public examination, be it the Board or CET, essentially serves the function of elimination much more than selection. This is because the aspirants outnumber the seats available in higher education institutions.

Under the circumstances, one needs a system that justifies both success and failure and enjoys the credibility of being fair, neutral and objective. Look at Delhi University, for instance. Every year, the insane marks acquired by students make news. If a student who gets 99% marks in Boards wants admission to St. Stephens College but the cutoff is 99.5%, he will never question the fairness of the system but will either curse his luck or console himself saying that he should have worked harder and those selected probably deserved more.


Coaching Centres, Guidebooks: A Never-Ending Culture

In a socially unequal fabric, an education system that is in complete harmony with it, with different schools offering uneven quality education, public examinations, is a farce. During Boards/CET, students from completely different backgrounds, both in terms of the schools that they have studied in and the homes they come from, are expected to sit as equals and compete with each other. It’s ironic that the roots of the discriminatory nature of the examination lie in its very approach, which treats everyone as the same, without accommodating the differences among them.

Performing well in such exams is not necessarily an indicator of a person’s merit or ability, but is more about the technique of cracking the exam. The mantra for succeeding in such exams is often, work smart not hard. So long as there are public exams, where neither the teachers correcting answer scripts know their students, nor students know their teachers, coaching centres will continue to flourish. Similarly, guidebooks exist not just for students, but for teachers as well – those who are required to give detailed reports about students in their report cards.

It is strange to see that as a society, we are smug about unequal education systems, both in the public and private sectors.

Depending on one’s socio-economic location, students access different institutions that are clearly hierarchical in nature – supporting the privileged student to continue to take advantage of their position and stalling the less privileged candidate’s chances of social mobility.

Though not always true, in general, against a divided social fabric, and an equally if not more divided education system, to rely on an assessment system to provide fair and equitable opportunities to students is a bit far-fetched.

(The author is Professor at School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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