Sucheta Dalal
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When management gurus failed to bell the CAT

After two disastrous days of technical problems and pathetic coordination between the country's prestigious management schools, the Common Admission Test (CAT) 2009 finally had a smooth run on Monday, which is the third day of the staggered model that has been adopted. CAT, which determines admission to top business schools, mainly the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) usually sees applications from millions of students.

 This is the first time that the exams were being conducted online, but the process was marred with technical glitches and systems crashing, leading to cancellations at 49 labs in 24 centres across thirteen cities. The launch of the computerised CAT involved the delivery of exams by a unit of US-based technology-enabled testing and assessment services provider Prometric Inc into more than 360 testing labs at 104 individual locations.
 
Prometric Testing Pvt Ltd (Prometric India), a subsidiary of Prometric, was awarded a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract by the IIMs to conduct the CAT for entry into top management schools in India.
 
According to a PTI report, Ramesh Nava, Prometric’s vice president and general manager for Asia Pacific, Japan and Africa, had said, “Exhaustive plans were developed and put in place well in advance of the start of the testing window. Unfortunately viruses and malware that attacked the test delivery system were not detected by the anti-virus software at the testing centres."
 
Echoing the same views, IIM Bangalore's director Pankaj Chandra had said, "In each centre there are five-six rooms where the CAT exam is being conducted. In a few rooms of some centres, there was a virus attack on computers. However, students in such centres will be given an alternative for the test—either today or on some other day, and they will be intimated."
 
However, there is no independent confirmation of a virus either by any student, who took the test or by any media reports. Many experts are questioning the preparedness of Prometric and IIMs to conduct an exam of this scale, the technical infrastructure at the labs as well as the basic technical knowledge of the support staff.
 
Vijay Mukhi, cyber expert and head of IT for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), says, “Had the CAT exams been conducted using cloud technologies, none of the servers would have crashed and students would not have had to go through such hardships. I cannot understand why the IIMs shy away from using the latest state-of-the-art technologies used by the likes of Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Amazon.”
 
This time, there are around 2.4 lakh aspirants taking the CAT 2009 exam online, spread over 10 days, for admission into India's top management schools. Many IT experts are also questioning the logic behind conducting the exam over 10 days, when the same can be done in a day. "Any computer professional will say that it is not difficult to build a system taking the load of some question papers for 2.4 lakh people, and the test should have been held on a single day," said an expert.
 
According to media reports, students in centres across the country, particularly Chennai and Bengaluru and a number of Tier II cities, had reported that they could not log in using the given username. They also reported that computers were ‘crashing’ or ‘shutting down’ during the course of the exam, execution errors were being thrown up on the screen in the middle of the test and some questions were refusing to respond to a click and hence not being answered and so on.
 
IIMs have put a disclaimer on their site warning that anybody who attempts to leak the question will face three years of jail or a fine of Rs2 lakh. However, given the high stakes on IIM admissions and the long period of 10 days to conduct the CAT, there are chances that a lot of business and tech-savvy players may be making a killing by revealing question papers stealthily, another expert said.
 
Following the chaos during the first two days, many IIM aspirants—especially those who could not take the test—are feeling depressed. Prometric claimed that all affected students have been notified and the exam would be rescheduled within this year's testing period. However, there was some confusion among students for whom the test had been rescheduled.
 
“We were not informed immediately. When there is a change in the schedule, we must be informed immediately. The change in the schedule adds to the pressure on us,” one student told PTI.
 
One IT expert said that he was thinking about filing a class action suit against the IIMs. "Those who spent a lot of money to come to the centre and could not take the test should at least be compensated for the money spent. Not to mention the mental agony. It doesn’t matter a hoot if thousands are able to take the test. What about the uncertainty in the mind of a student who has a test scheduled for tomorrow? He doesn’t know whether it will be held or not," the expert said.
 
Earlier, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) tried an online entrance exam where the entire online infrastructure collapsed within a few minutes. IGNOU has asked Yahoo, the infrastructure provider for the exams, for a detailed report on the collapse.
 
Why were the staff at NIIT, a partner of Prometric, not trained properly? Why did Prometric's personnel not reach the faulty testing centres on time? Why were there delays in registration?
 
And when there were so many problems, why are the IIMs and Prometric blaming it on a virus? Or is it just a gimmick they are using to bluff the nation? Did both of them conduct the process and software testing so as to avoid glitches?
 

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