Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pushback time

It was just yesterday when Charu Sudan Kasturi reported in The Telegraph   on the very interesting contents of a report from a committee of IIT directors suggesting that JEE be replaced by a combination of Board exams and a SAT-like aptitude test.

Some of the early reaction [here, here and here] has focused on coaching centers: since the proposed move strikes at the very soul of their business, we may expect them oppose it with all their might.

Coaching centers may yet get into the act, but the credit for being the first off the block should go to the one constituency that is bound tightly to the JEE -- the IIT alumni.

Here's their petition: An appeal not to abolish JEE. [Hat tip: Apoorva Mathad's comment on this buzz]

I wouldn't take the petition's contents as representing the views of all the IITians; with that caveat out of the way, I've got to admit that it's an amazing document. With its condescending tone, marketing jargon, sad grammar, and poor punctuation, it's still a virtual gold mine -- offering us nuggets of insight into how some IITians view themselves, their achievements, and their relationship with the rest of India and the world.

Some excerpts [with my 'commentary' restricted to adding bold emphasis]:

[In JEE, there] was no emphasis on overall performance at high school and none on student's educational background, promoting a level playing field for students from nooks and corners of India.

The success of IIT alumni who have done the Nation proud belongs to the Indian Government, the IITs themselves and also the Indian Tax Payers, whose money was invested unconditionally by GoI in IITs for five decades.

Whilst all of the above share credit for the success of the IITs, basic marketing principles would say that a Global Brand is created more by its graduates and the benefits that those alumni bring to India and the world at large, than any other single entity; thus, IIT Alumni is a critically important group to consider.

The key ingredient to the IIT system is the JEE ( Joint Entrance Examination ), that has helped pick truly gifted students for 50 years for a B.Tech Degree. Quality materials are needed to develop a quality product, and JEE does just that, selecting from about 400,000 aspirants annually, the cream of the nation to study at IITs.

Any system that has consistently delivered high on career development can be prone to abuse. There have been allegations of some misuse of the JEE too. Private coaching classes have mushroomed around the country to circumvent JEE methodologies used to identify excellence. This needs to be fixed.

However abolishing JEE would be a case of "throwing the baby out with the bath water". We are sure you will see our appeal is fair, in the best interest of the nation and children of the future.

Okay, I can go on and on [and the entire petition cries out to be fisked], but I think I should stop with this:

JEE is very different from 10+2 board exams in that JEE tests a students raw intelligence, which is an individual's ability to grasp abstract concepts, recognize patterns plus apply prior knowledge while 10+2 school board exams test knowledge acquired at school. [...]


  1. Vivek Kumar said...

    Of course, we all know that coaching for a "SAT-like" aptitude exam is impossible! And coaching for Board exams is simply impossiblest (it should be a word)!

    The days of coaching classes are clearly numbered. The countdown to a merit-based admission system for IITs has begun. The day will soon be upon us when poor-but-meritorious students will get admitted to IIT over rich-but-mediocre students.

    I see rainbows.. unicorns..

    The petition is BS, of course. I have always been against online petitions - regardless of their causes.

  2. Nishant Dasgupta said...

    I don't deny the fact that some (if not most) of the students getting into the IITs are gifted, but the rest get in only because they are good at taking exams (that's where coaching classes come into the picture). Even the gifted students have to go for these classes because the JEE in its present form has become a test of how good you are at taking tests, instead of testing your *raw intelligence*.

    It's indeed commendable that the committee has decided to get rid of the JEE. Also, with the new system in place, the competition will be just as tough, but this time there'll be more emphasis on the overall development of the student during the school days (the formative years as they are called).

    Even though it's a satirical post, but it still shows what the general opinion of the people is about the JEE, and the IITs would do well to change that.

  3. Ungrateful Alive said...

    Just one reason is enough to justify abolishing JEE: IIT profs can now concentrate on curriculum development, teaching and research instead of moonlighting as Educational Testing Services.

  4. p said...

    I don't know about the JEE, but the GATE is a classic example of a perverse exam. It does not test any fundamentals and has led to the mushrooming of certain "engineering colleges" that are nothing more than coaching institutes. It also dissuades many motivated students from considering graduate studies in India.
    Maybe the JEE does create a level playing field for younger schoolchildren, but it is disgraceful that India's finest institutions select graduate students based on multiple choice questions.

  5. Ravi Venkataraman said...

    As a successful candidate at IIT-JEE (1983) [Abi's junior by two years at IT-BHU], one who never used any coaching material nor had seen even a single IIT sample paper until the actual exam, I fully concur with the recommendation that the JEE be scrapped.

    Today, it seems to me that success in JEE is predicated on the amount of hard work one is willing to put in, not on innate ability. As others have pointed out, even the really smart people have to go to coaching classes in order to get good ranks.

    I often ask others to name one world-famous person produced by the IITs in the sciences or engineering, or a world famous technology or product created by ex-IIT alumni. This inevitably draws a blank. Infosys founders do not count since they are a successful business venture. The only person I can think of is Narendra Karmarkar, formerly of AT&T Bell labs.

    Why aren't the IITs able to identify creative people and nurture them? Aren't there any creative people in India? Obviously there are, yet few seem to go through the IIT mill.

    Pranav Mistry's TED talk is very impressive, yet I don't think he is a product of the JEE. The Nobel Prize winner, V Ramakrishnan, did not qualify for the IITs! If that's not an indictment of the JEE, I don't know what is. At the very least, this should be a wake up call.

    I will be very glad when the JEE is scrapped in favour of a system that evaluates the ability of a person to think critically and independently.

  6. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    I doubt if these changes alone will affect the presence of coaching classes. Coaching classes will be present as long as there is (a) competition and (b) an exam that a student can be coached to succeed at.

    Over many years, the JEE questions have started showing some patterns that one can be coached to identify and thus solve. Whatever exam (or collection of exams) will substitute the JEE should also be strategy-proof to succeed.

  7. Abhinav said...

    A very radical suggestion from the committee but I dont think its radical enough. I would suggest a dual track admission, where say 1/10 of positions would be filled by JEE alone (capture the olympiad crowd) while the rest of positions will be filled by combo of boards and JEE

  8. Abi said...

    @Vivek: Thanks for agreeing with me on the petition's BS-quotient. As for coaching centers, let's see how vehemently they protest; their intensity will tell us about what they think about their prospects in coaching for the SAT-like exam.

    @Nishant: Thanks for that link!

    @WebMiner: :-)

    @Pritwiraj: Multiple choice questions are here to stay (especially when tens of thousands of students take the exam -- like in CS, EE, MechE). That stuff is not going to change!

    @Ravi: Good to see you here!

    When JEE goes away, IITs'll have a chance to re-think admission procedures. Let's hope they'll be able to come up with something better.

    @Ankur: Quite. Even the SAT is coachable!

    @Abhinav: Yes, what you suggest (using JEE for part of the admissions) is one way to go about it; the Olympiads could also be considered.

  9. Rainbow Scientist said...

    You made my day:) Thanks!

  10. gautam barua said...

    Glad to read so many comments lauding the suggestions. However, there are many hurdles to cross. Some of your comments have indirectly alluded to them. The main issue is: how do we factor in the results of the class XII Board exams when there are 32 (and counting) school boards in the country? If one uses marks, then there will be "inflation". One obvious solution is to use a percentile as a qualifying criteria: only the top 10% students of every Board will be able to sit for the JEE aptitude exam. If this is implemented there will be blood everywhere. When the Education Minister suggested that the eligibility for sitting for JEE be raised to something like 80% in the Board exams (it is now 60%), his "putla" was set on fire in the streets of Lucknow, Hardoi, Patna. The cry was : Disadvantaged students will not be able to dream of getting into IITs as the schools they go to are not good. If a percentile scheme is introduced, I wonder what or who will be set on fire. So then we should "normalise" the Board marks (of the 32 Boards). How to do this? What will be the criteria? Will parents of students wangle a transfer to Nagaland so that their children can "top" the Boards there?
    What to do? We need well thought out suggestions from you. We must change the current system.
    The report of the Directors is a direct consequence of the suggestion of the Education Minister. But implementation issues remain unresolved.
    The coaching institutes must be forced to become "schools" for class XII Board exams. That is the only way to save our future generations.
    Gautam Barua, Director IIT Guwahati

  11. Anonymous said...

    Somehow I feel that there wont be a major change in the nature of people who get into IITs. Those who have 'raw intellect', as mentioned somewhere, can surely ace the board exams, which I am sure they anyway do. Others, who neglect 11th and 12th education to go through the grind of the coachings, can now go through the grind of the school, which in my humble opinion is a more enriching experience. As far as I can think, this can benefit the students from not-so-privileged backgrounds who can't afford fat fees for the coaching institutes.
    And the petition itself is pretty crap, probably drafted by a second year undergraduate student pretty full on the ego of having cleared the 'JEE'.

    I did my undergraduation from IIT Kanpur. Many of my friends are from there and in some of the status messages I saw this petition to 'Save JEE' and my first thought was 'WHY??'

    Can't we all just cool down and think of a rational solution to allocate this limited resource(IITs) among the overwhelming youth of the country so that the returns are maximized! I am sure we can. Lets bring out that solution rather than fighting to retain the status quo. Status Quo is obviously not working as well as one would like to and hence the need for change.