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)