Outlook's Sugata Srinivasaraju has collected several strands of complaints against the dreaded -- and dreadfully brutal -- Joint Entrant Examination of the IITs. And in a welcome development, several IIT faculty members have come forward to voice their strong views against this "gruesome" examination that "reduces young people to automatons" who "[rely] on pattern recognition":
But what is the chief complaint about the JEE system and quality of students getting into the IITs? The JEE tests are said to be of an irrationally high standard, which makes students depend on intensive coaching at the cost of systematic scientific education and normal teenage activities.
Take a look at the critique of three IIT Kanpur professors on the JEE system in an in-house journal. Prof Vijay Gupta writes: "Teaching and coaching are two different kinds of things. Even the best coaching does not attempt to clarify concepts. It does not inculcate the spirit of inquiry. It does not train persons in starting from first principles. Instead it relies on pattern recognition. Do enough problems so that when you see a problem in the exam, you can recall the special trick required to obtain the answer.... Most entrants into IITs have not read a single book in their last three years or so." Prof B.N. Banerjee touches upon his classroom experience: "JEE has spawned a system that reduces young people to automatons, in more senses than one. They not only become robots in academics, as all of us can see in our core teaching encounters, they even resemble one another in personality. Gone are the sparkling eyes and scintillating engagements that used to be the teacher's joy..."
When the inputs for getting into IITs is itself flawed, how could one expect the finished product to be a bright spark? "One cannot get a diamond out of clay or ordinary stone, however much it is polished," says Prof M.R. Madhav. In a mail exchange, a IIT-Madras professor admitted: "One thing my colleagues and I seem to agree is about the damage that the gruesome entrance exam causes to the motivation of a student to study seriously after entering the campus. Having seen fellow students decades ago and my students now, I should say there is a deterioration."
Across the IITs, there is a deep-rooted belief that because JEE is the examination of the IITs, it must be of a standard that is much higher than that of other institutions. I have repeatedly heard the argument that the JEE question papers have helped in raising the standards of education in our country. Another argument often heard is that the coaching establishments are providing education of a high standard. These arguments fly in the face of the obvious fact that the average standard of our students has been falling over the past decade and a half. JEE has spawned a regime of science education through problem solving, in which comprehension is equated with the ability to work out the answers to outlandish, tricky problems. The more such problems that a student knows, the more acceptable he is to JEE. The little exposure that I have had to the methodology of the coaching establishments tells me that they do not educate; they break up the material into little modules that consist of problem types and the student learns to recognise and deal with hundreds of such problems. Understanding of the concepts has nothing to do with it. [...]
It is argued that, if the examination were any easier, it would be impossible to discriminate and select students. The fact is that, even now, we are not doing a very good job of discriminating. The examination is so hard and the scores so low, that chance plays a very big part. Who would be so brave as to assert that, of two low-scoring students in a low scoring examination, one is better than the other? Or that the student who just missed the cut is inferior? In my opinion, the successful candidates of JEE can be divided into three groups. These divisions would be, roughly, the first three hundred ranks, then the next five or six hundred ranks and finally all the others who are ranked below, say, nine hundred. On another day, the members of this third group may not make the cut at all.
Why have we been so singularly ineffective in reforming this examination which Newsweek magazine has recently referred to as "this notorious examination"? I do not have all the answers, but some explanations are obvious. I believe that the most significant factor is our inability to appreciate that the candidates for JEE are school students, coupled with our ignorance of the standards of school examinations. Perhaps we have the subconscious notion that we are testing IIT material. Perhaps we are shackled by the level at which we teach our core courses. Another possible factor is our constant phobia about the coaching institutions. The race between these institutions and the JEE paper setters is a vicious and self-nourishing cycle. [...]
What we need is one, single, standardized exam whose primary goal must be, well, standardization of curriculum and teaching in India's many school examination boards. Ideally, this exam should be organized multiple times a year (it should preferably be available on tap -- anytime, anywhere); and statistical weighting of questions -- standardization! -- should minimize the role of luck.
The IITs have exhibited a curious lack of vision by refusing to take the lead in creating and developing such a standardized exam. They have chosen instead to stick to a deeply flawed model that has many kinds of bias -- the worst being the bias against women.
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Thanks to an anonymous commenter for the pointer to the Outlook piece.