Doing better than a competitive exam

Business Standard, 21 August 2023

by Nitin Pai and Ajay Shah.

The IIT JEE is revered as the arbiter of merit. With industrialised coaching classes, it is less clear that the JEE selects the right people to attend IIT. Simplistic measurement of marks in an exam is not how the entry barriers into most sensible institutions work. The high powered incentive -- attending an IIT -- is damaging the learning process. We propose a two-part mechanism: a broad exam that filters for sound capability, and then randomised allocation. The overall impact of such a mechanism would be positive.

What is the mind that we seek to nurture?

Test preparation has corroded Indian education. Across India, children no longer just attend high school, they are enrolled in coaching classes. Here, it is not necessary to study the subject and understand concepts. All they need to learn is the finite list of multiple choice questions (MCQs) that are likely to appear in entrance examinations. In bookstores, you are more likely to find test-prep study materials instead of text books and non-fiction.

It is tempting to see this as a reflection of a growing economy, aspirational families and a young, upwardly mobile demographic. On the contrary, this hollowing out of education is detrimental for India's future where jobs, wealth and social status will accrue to knowledgeable, flexible and innovative individuals.

Test prep is not education. Education allows a person to critically analyse information, make good judgements and apply knowledge in new domains. While genuine understanding of science, mathematics and logical reasoning can result in good scores in entrance examinations, the converse is not true. The overwhelming focus on preparing for entrance examinations, particularly JEE, is now creating generations of Indians with shiny credentials but weak foundations. Thirty years ago we could dismiss such concerns because really good kids would still get through: the test prep at the time was less industrialised. Today that is no longer true.

In the Information Age, success will come to those with general cognitive ability, to the values of breadth of knowledge, curiosity, risk-taking and challenging the establishment: all the foundations which are crushed by the JEE.

What the competitive exams filter for

The present JEE environment filters for the households and kids who (a) are able to spend many lakhs of rupees on coaching classes, and (b) have the culture of regimentation from age 14 to age 17. How much regimentation is required? In 2023 alone so far, 20 children in Kota have committed suicide, and local government officials are forcing hostels to modify their fans so that a load of above 20 kg is not supported. We can only imagine how this level of regimentation dulls the imagination. The tendrils of curiosity, dissent, imagination, creativity and risk-taking are likely to be crushed in these years. We are creating followers, not leaders.

Solutions that don't work

Upgrading high school syllabi and implementing the National Education Policy 2020 is sometimes proposed as the answer. This is insufficient because they do not fundamentally change students' and their parents' incentives. Real change will only come if a seat in an elite academic institution is no longer seen as the sole objective of going to school.

A Chinese-style ban upon coaching class companies is also not a solution as the coaching business will merely go underground. We have to solve this problem at the root cause.

Randomised allocation after demonstrating foundations

For each student, the JEE outcome is now an unpredictable event, a lottery. Many chance factors are tipping the scale today, such as a student being unwell on the exam day, or a heat wave at the test centre. Buying the lottery ticket is something that only well-off families can afford it. A typical fee for a year's JEE coaching is close to what an average Indian earns in a year. The JEE is a poor estimator of true capability, and it is hard to say the 80,000 who do not make it are systematically inferior to the 20,000 who do.

We think that replacing JEE with a lottery-based allocation to IITs will have transformative effects for Indian education.

The price of IIT lottery ticket can be reduced to zero. Seats can be randomly allocated to applicants who meet basic requirements. Specifically, we could envision a first level exam, which is not about the things that google knows, out of which the top 200,000 ranks are shortlisted. At the second stage, a random list of 20,000 would be chosen to attend the IITs. Such an approach, we contend, outperforms the current method on several important dimensions:

  1. It will change the incentives of every player in the education eco-system and align them towards desirable goals. Parents, students, teachers, schools and the coaching class industry will no longer be obsessed with cracking meaningless multiple choice questions. There will be a greater possibility for a child to pursue genuine knowledge, to not lead a regimented life from age 13 to 17, to not fight for each mark in the process of preparation, and yet make it into the list of the top 200,000 persons.
  2. Universities and engineering colleges around the country will feel customer pressure to upgrade their standards, because they will now encounter candidates with higher expectations and ambitions. In addition to the 23 IITs, we could see the emergence of many good engineering colleges in the country, including at government controlled universities.
  3. The IITs themselves will benefit from a more diverse cohort. There will be greater knowledge and curiosity, and less test prep, in the persons who attend IIT. There will be greater class heterogeneity and diverse family backgrounds coming into the campus. Professors and administrators will have to think more about their pedagogy and internal methods. IITs will also face greater domestic competition when good students of the country are dispersed among a large number of universities.
  4. Allocation by lottery is a more equitable way to assign scarce publicly-financed resources. The present JEE system is unfair and exacerbates social inequalities.

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