Career
Perils of increasingly challenging college-entrance exams in India

As someone who grew up in India, getting his high-school and part of his college education there, and as someone who has been an engineering professor in the U.S. for the last seventeen years, I have had the opportunity to observe students from multiple nations. Students from India have key characteristics that are quite distinct from those of other developing and, of course, developed nations.

There are several underlying social, cultural, and economic forces that lead to these differences, but I will focus on the main forces as I see them. Currently, expectations from high school students in India are sky-high. They were always high, even about four decades back, but they have only been rising, and rising steeply every year. And the existence of these sky-high expectations is strongly related to the phenomenon of college entrance exams having become unreasonably difficult over the years. These entrance exams have now reached such an extraordinary level of difficulty that I am simply amazed at how kids are even beginning to prepare for them. I recently took the trouble to peruse a copy of the latest Joint Entrance Engineering Exam in the state of West Bengal; this is an exam that I had myself cleared to get into Jadavpur University for my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in the late 1980s. The recent exam that I reviewed turned out to be so absurdly difficult that I can categorically state that a vast majority of questions on it would flummox most final-year engineering students in developed countries. So let us try to understand the reasons why these exams have become so uncommonly hard.

In India, educational resources, i.e., government colleges, have not grown in proportion to the population. The number of seats in government colleges in the highly sought-after disciplines of science and technology (engineering and medicine) is a small fraction of the total demand. As a result, exams have been made more competitive – to select the few who can be accommodated within the limited capacity of government colleges. Further, in order to make these exams more challenging, their syllabi have continued to expand: their syllabi now include topics from high-level material in physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics generally taught in colleges (not high schools) in most developed countries. I will cite a simple example from mathematics. The ‘determinant’ (a mathematical structure) is hard enough at that age to master and was something I was taught in high school, but nowadays kids taking these exams also require competency in working with a ‘matrix’, which is a significantly more advanced topic. I honestly do not believe a concept as abstract as that of a matrix is fully comprehensible at that age.  Furthermore, the problems that actually appear in the exams are typically those that most kids at that age would rate as the most difficult ones.

Impact? The value of any massive exercise such as a joint (or common) entrance examination has to be measured on the basis of its results. What impact has any of this had on the state of science and technology in India? If these exams were of such a high quality that preparing for them would produce very competent minds, they should have generated positive results by now. But, personally, I have heard from numerous friends that it's difficult to find college-educated experts even in basic data analysis. Industrial innovation is almost non-existent. So the question to ponder on is this: Are these increasingly challenging exams providing any value to society? And just because resources are diminishing on a per-capita basis, thereby increasing competition, is it fair to make entrance exams more difficult? No, that does not appear to be a sensible way out of this problem!

In Western countries, for instance, exams have never been made more difficult to weed out a larger number. College-entrance exams are designed to test basic proficiency and allow students to change their mind on the discipline they wish to pursue after they join college. Exams have not played too big a role in deciding who gets into college, and the level of their difficulty has never reached the absurd levels seen in India. Some of the greatest innovators in the West have never had to clear exams like the joint (or common) entrance exams of India to enter college. In fact, it has been the opposite. Most of whom I have read about (e.g., Steve Jobs) were very driven from a very young age (no dearth of that anywhere in the world) but were focused on one or two disciplines that they enjoyed at the level they wanted to – without worrying about results of exams. The West still leads in innovations in science, engineering, technology, and medicine. The culture of discovery is alive and thriving, delivering i-phones and now possibly automated cars. How is it that the West has managed to produce these ingenious brains and large volumes of highly dedicated professionals without these tough entrance exams?

“Do the impossible”: Coming back to the Indian educational system, there is one striking quality that has to be highlighted here. There is this unwritten understanding amongst students and their teachers that students are expected to know everything out there on the topic tested. They are being routinely told things like these: Be prepared for questions on the exam paper the like of which have never appeared in all years past. I have found compelling evidence of this – not just in my interactions with high school teachers from India but also with students there. And this is not fair – for these students are already exposed to a very large volume of material. For instance, kids who pursue the science stream in high school are expected to master the inner workings of complicated physical phenomena, memorize a slew of formulas from modern physics, as well as tons of seemingly meaningless organic and inorganic chemical reactions, and integrate really complicated functions in their calculus work. In a nutshell, students are really expected to swim in the ocean. I do not believe it is possible for any regular human to master so much material in a span of two years at that age.

Fallout: On the one hand, the ridiculously difficult exams imply that many students know full well that they may not perform in a satisfactory manner unless they cheat. This is not true for just the competitive exams anymore; the level of difficulty of even the Higher Secondary Exam (the board exam students must clear at a “passing” level to graduate out of high school) has risen over the years. The media has regularly reported on cheating occurring in India. Cheating is not restricted to the state of Bihar. It is an all-pervasive phenomenon, commonly seen in some degree in students from all parts of India. The willingness to cheat completely kills professionalism – the ability to sincerely perform on your job – as well as creativity. This has done serious damage to Indian society. It is not easy to find professionalism in those who work in the banks and other institutions or for that matter in most walks of life.

On the other hand, those who clear these exams start labouring under the belief that they must be extraordinary stars – simply because they cleared those exams with flying colours. I observed this phenomenon in a more pronounced magnitude at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology (where I got my Master's degree). Sadly, what many of these know-all kids don't realise is this: those exam questions were at one or two levels above them at that stage and were really not even meant for them, but were set by teachers who lacked vision on how to test individuals. That feeling of superiority is enormously damaging when it comes to performing creative work, e.g., research at the post-graduate level.

Secondly, these unreasonable expectations have ruined childhoods. Have you recently seen children in that age group (those in their 11th and 12th grades)? Many of them are simply wilting under the pressure, and that is often obvious from their faces. The media reports suicides occurring annually when results are announced in the months of March through May. At this point, reader, I want you to pause for a minute and think: Can there be anything worse? Are these difficult exams worth it if they are driving kids to suicides? And even those who handle these pressures have scars that remain with them for the rest of their lives. Nearly three decades after taking my first college entrance exam, even now, I often see this nightmare in which I am in an exam hall and the paper has questions that I have no clue about!

Finally, cramming enormous amounts of material, e.g., physics formulas, a sea of chemical equations, and calculus, leaves little time for learning anything else. In the 11th and 12th grades, young minds also need to be exposed to civics, ethics, critical thinking, some Shakespeare perhaps, and possibly also to some fun activities – regardless of which discipline they choose to pursue in college.

Solutions: Obviously, there are solutions to this. Some are not difficult to implement, but most require allocation of money. I am not suggesting that India blindly mimic models from elsewhere. In fact, it is truly wonderful how India has developed its own unique system of testing, and how, year after year, it conducts these tests on a massive scale in an efficient manner. I am also not advocating for dilution of the rigour or reducing the depth of the material taught. All I am suggesting is that Indians revise high-school curricula and make college entrance exams more reasonable, like they used to be in the fifties or sixties.

I will conclude with some suggestions that I can offer. One, the number of government colleges in all disciplines must increase by a factor of four or more (or as necessary) to accommodate the enormous population increase India has seen. Not everyone can afford to send their kids to private colleges, where, for the most part, education is of a dubious quality anyway. Two, very importantly, college entrance exams need to be made much, much easier and also more reasonable in terms of what the average student can grasp at that age. Further, material which is really college-level must not be taught in high schools. Three, students need to get lessons in civics and ethics in high school – to become the good citizens who will behave professionally, serve society, and take responsibility for their actions in the remainder of their lives.

(Dr. Abhijit Gosavi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering in Missouri University of Science and Technology at Rolla, Missouri, USA)

User

COMMENTS

Prakash Bhate

4 months ago

Even if someone finds the money to increase the number of government colleges finding good faculty to keep these colleges running will be a challenging task. As it is, there is a severe faculty crunch. Maybe Indian faculty in foreign universities may come back to India and join these universities/colleges and contribute substantially rather than writing a piece once in a way. Same is true for Indian professionals working in India. They may think of a visiting professorship. They may have to sacrifice their Saturdays once in a while and the compensation may just about cover their taxi fare. But the satisfaction of having done something solid rather than merely cribbing will be priceless. It can be done even now, without waiting for new colleges to be started; so alarming is the current faculty shortage. Once the colleges increase in number the severity of entrance exams will automatically come down. Finally, no amount of courses in ethics or civics will neutralize the effect of unethical behavior a child sees and experiences at home while growing up.

REPLY

Abhijit Gosavi

In Reply to Prakash Bhate 4 months ago

You make a good suggestion in that working professionals can teach (some of the courses) part-time (possibly in the evenings). You also agree that an increased number of govt. colleges will reduce the level of difficulty of these exams, which has wreaked havoc on the nation (even the lack of medals in the Olympics can be partly traced to this phenomenon). When the number of colleges is increased and good salaries are offered for faculty, PhDs from India will automatically be drawn to those positions.

If India can send satellites to Mars, it can certain home-grow teachers for its undergrad education. Those who have become profs in the U.S. find it difficult to return for numerous reasons (there are exceptions, as you know, like the Nobel Laureate who was charging the poor state of Bihar $80K annually).

Nag Gopalan

4 months ago

Correct analysis. Educationists in India need to take a look.

Param

4 months ago

wonderful synopsis. i have tried to share with my friends. i hope it reaches the key people who hold the power to fix the system...

Arun Tom Abraham

4 months ago

Nice article. Although we learn civics and ethics in school, when it comes to adult life very few in our country seem interested in following them.

sarbajit roy

4 months ago

The Ld. Professor obviously does not know that in India CBSE students are taught matrices and determinants in class 12, ie. 2 years AFTER children in the West are (in Grade 10).

REPLY

Abhijit Gosavi

In Reply to sarbajit roy 4 months ago

In the West, concepts are taught at a level appropriate for the age group concerned. In India, they test you with the most difficult problems on that concept in these entrance exams; that's my point. There may be other differences of this nature. The larger point is that those entrance exams in India and those in the West are not even comparable on their level of difficulty. That the entrance exams in India have become absurdly difficult is undeniable.

Abhijit Gosavi

In Reply to sarbajit roy 4 months ago

In the West, concepts are taught at a level appropriate for the age group concerned. In India, they test you with the most difficult problems on that concept in these entrance exams; that's my point. There may be other differences of this nature. The larger point is that those entrance exams in India and those in the West are not even comparable on their level of difficulty. That the entrance exams in India have become absurdly difficult is undeniable.

Abhijit Gosavi

In Reply to sarbajit roy 4 months ago

In the West, concepts are taught at a level appropriate for the age group concerned. In India, they test you with the most difficult problems on that concept in these entrance exams; that's my point. There may be other differences of this nature. The larger point is that those entrance exams in India and those in the West are not even comparable on their level of difficulty. That the entrance exams in India have become absurdly difficult is undeniable.

Soul-less Science
“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.”  — Bertrand Russell
 
Science should learn from nature and not try and teach nature a lesson or two. The story of mad cow disease is still fresh in our memory. Materialistic science wanted to get more money by making the cows give more milk and beef by making the cow a non-vegetarian. Cows were fed giblets from goats, sheep, chicks and what have you. Very soon, an organism without DNA and RNA was born—the prion—the cause of the mad cow disease. The story is still more dangerous. They are actually playing with fire in trying to change evolution itself.
 
A thoughtful veterinary surgeon was pouring his heart out to me about the state-of-affairs in his field, which made me feel really bad. How can we assume that we are superior creatures on this planet and have the right over the life of all other animals? They are as much a part of this world and its evolution. The scientific hubris of the scientists from advanced countries defies nature! As George Bernard Shaw wrote: “Intellectual integrity made it quite impossible for me to accept the myths and dogmas of even very great scientists, more particularly of the belligerent and so-called advanced nations. Indeed, those intellectuals who accepted them were abdicating their functions for the joy of feeling themselves at one with the herd.” 
 
I couldn’t agree more. Look at how we torture the calf to make veal for our enjoyment. The meat has to be soft, white and succulent. To get that, we put the new-born calf in a dark room with just enough space to stand still and not move. The calf can never see the sun or touch the ground as it has just enough space to stand alone, between two walls. No food is given to drain itself of all the blood in circulation and no muscle growth. Then the calf is sacrificed at the butcher’s shop. Isn’t this really cruel? But veal is the most expensive item in five-star hotels. Who gave us that right to kill that innocent creature in that manner? Who do we think we are? 
 
As if that were not enough; now, the scientific community has started with the most horrendous job of almost changing the very purpose of life on this planet, as reductionist science does not believe that this world has any purpose. It is supposed to work like a purposeless clock set in motion at the Big Bang. Veterinary ‘scientists’ are trying to change the very purpose of life for the sake of those who are very powerful. The two driving forces of life are self-preservation and procreation. 
 
Now, the ‘scientists’ want to destroy the very cycle and make the cows get artificially inseminated to produce just female calves! Gradually, the animals might forget their cycle and the males might become extinct! This will be dangerous situation as we are completely upsetting the intention of evolution on this planet. This brings to mind the dangerous ‘eugenics’ games being played by Hitler and his hit men on human species! In what way are our present scientists different from Hitler? What worries me is like the mad cow disease, nature will teach mankind a bitter lesson when we meddle with its very purpose. When that happens, innocent people, who think scientists are some kind of superior beings, also suffer. The terrorists are seen doing harm (killing, torturing, etc.) and they are universally condemned; but the scientists playing a more dangerous game are being eulogised! A mad world indeed!
 
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

User

COMMENTS

Mahesh S Bhatt

4 months ago

Good Article.

Money is new God Values are gone to dogs.Ethical Conscious Capitalism is non existent hence more chaos Pl view Values for Wealth at youtube.com.

Intelligent people are becoming more corrupt & legally correct. Sad times. Mahesh

Deepak Narain

4 months ago

The mad commercial pursuit of all aspects of life is taking away spirituality and higher values. This does not portent well. There have to be some decent limits to commercial exploitation.

pradeep gowda

4 months ago

Very Rightly said Professor.

Go Pokémon Go...
As I write this piece, Pokemon Go, the latest fad among mobile users is not yet officially launched in India. However, this does not mean that people are not playing this free-to-play location-based augmented reality game on their mobile handsets. We are not against anyone using their mobiles for other purposes than what the device was invented for. However, with augmented reality-type games, there is always a danger to the lives of the player as well as those of others. 
 
According to reports, the Dutch company ProRail has complained that players are entering the railway tracks. Residents of the Sydney suburb of Rhodes were so fed up with the large numbers of players gathering in their area, that they threw water bombs at the visiting players, says another news report. Police, from several countries, have issued warnings about inattentive driving and trespassing, while playing the game. Many people have suffered injuries from accidents related with the game, as per media reports.
 
Now about the game. Pokémon Go was released in July 2016 on iOS and Android-based devices. Using the device’s GPS and camera, the game allows players to capture, battle and train virtual creatures, called Pokémon. These Pokémons appear on the device screen just like in the real world. They can be anywhere and everywhere, like a shop, restaurant or a garden. The player creates its own avatar to play this game which moves as the player roams around the game’s map. Depending on the location the player is moving around in, she would come across the Pokémons. For example, near water, there is a water-type Pokemon  which the player has to capture. In addition, players are required to physically travel to explore the game’s map and visit PokéStops and gyms. The ultimate goal of the game is to complete the entries in the Pokédex, a comprehensive Pokémon encyclopaedia, by capturing and evolving to obtain the original 151 Pokemon.
 
Within 24 hours after its release, Pokémon Go topped the American App Store’s ‘Top Grossing’ and ‘Free’ charts. The average daily usage of the app on Android devices exceeded Snapchat, Tinder, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, says a report. And all this, despite the game suffering from frequent crashes or outages of servers due to high number of users. The funniest part is that people in China, where Pokemon Go is not launched, used IDs from Australian app stores and a GPS spoofing app for Google services, to play the game! This happened across several countries. 
 
My point, especially in the Indian context, is that we do not have the kind of roads and landscapes and the rules for citizens to behave in public spaces. The infrastructure, at places where the Pokémon Go is officially launched and is being played by millions of mobile users, is much better than in India. And, yet, there are accidents and injuries. I can imagine what would happen to a youngster who would play the game on ever-crowded streets of Mumbai (or for that matter any other metros or even a Tier-II city). 
 
Mobiles were basically developed as tool for communication; they are now evolving as an entertainment device. However, this development has come at a cost. A cost for frequently charging (changing in some cases) batteries, high utilisation of Internet data and strain on eyes are just few examples. Not to forget medical treatment charges for injuries caused due to the addiction of playing games or using mobiles while walking on a busy road or a rail station. But, it is you who will be paying the cost.

User

We are listening!

Solve the equation and enter in the Captcha field.
  Loading...
Close

To continue


Please
Sign Up or Sign In
with

Email
Close

To continue


Please
Sign Up or Sign In
with

Email

BUY NOW

The Scam
24 Year Of The Scam: The Perennial Bestseller, reads like a Thriller!
Moneylife Magazine
Fiercely independent and pro-consumer information on personal finance
Stockletters in 3 Flavours
Outstanding research that beats mutual funds year after year
MAS: Complete Online Financial Advisory
(Includes Moneylife Magazine and Lion Stockletter)