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NEET: Standardized Testing or A Constitutional and Anti-Federal Quagmire?

It has been criticized for violating the federal structure of the country, particularly since education is on the concurrent list, and for imposing a singular vision of what a standardized exam looks like, when a multiplicity of boards and assessments exists in the country. The same students who performed excellently at the board level failed to even remotely pass the exam, in states such as Tamil Nadu with a robust education system.

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The National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) is in the news, yet again, for various reasons. Important among them are:

1) during NEET 2021, the exam paper was leaked in Rajasthan from a reputed examination center in Jaipur.

2) Cash for proxy scam was unearthed in Nagpur and

3) Justice AK Rajan’s report on the issue of NEET.

But NEET has been a subject of controversy for as long as it has existed. It has been criticized for violating the federal structure of the country, particularly since education is on the concurrent list, and for imposing a singular vision of what a standardized exam looks like, when a multiplicity of boards and assessments exists in the country. The same students who performed excellently at the board level failed to even remotely pass the exam, in states such as Tamil Nadu with a robust education system. The cases of Anitha, and more recently, of students like Dhanush (from Mettur, Salem) and Kanimozhi K (Ariyalur district, Tamil Nadu) has caused further uproar over the examination.

As Justice AK Rajan has pointed out, the exam is embroiled in many legal and constitutional questions, most of which remain unanswered, including the questions of federalism, which is established in the distribution of the responsibilities of coordination and determination of the education system and its structures, between the Centre and the States. The Union Government has no power to interfere with the process of admission of students to any of the courses conducted by the Universities established, controlled and regulated by the States.

Due to the experience of the state of Tamil Nadu in conducting CET for some years after the year 1984 with regards to the destructive consequences of such entrance exams on students, a decision was taken to abolish such entrance exams. Some of the other legal questions that the report has raised apart from the question of federalism are – public health and hospitals being a state subject, and the need to admit rural students to medical colleges particularly to administer and work in hospitals in rural areas. Such students do not find any place in the NEET ‘merit’ lists mostly.

Secondly, the report has laid open and exposed the false claim of ‘merit’ as measured only in numbers and as something that backward class students are seen to lack by quoting Jagdish Saran vs Union of India, “If potential for rural service or aptitude for rendering medical attention among backward people is a criterion of merit-and it, undoubtedly, is in a land of sickness and misery, neglect and penury, wails and tears-then, surely, belonging to a university catering to a deprived region is a plus point of merit. Excellence is composite and the heart and its sensitivity are as precious in the case of educational values…Merit cannot be measured in terms of marks alone, but human sympathies are equally important.”

The last point is very important as it expands the vision of a movement against such an exclusionary exam beyond the realm of one state or government and to a necessary and urgent movement that is needed pan-India. While Tamil Nadu has kick-started the fight, after losing many bright and gifted students to the clutches of such an exam, it is important that movements and organizations across the country critically evaluate such an exam rather than only entering the rat-race to be able to succeed within the structure of it.

The Tamil Nadu Case and the Justice AK Rajan Report:

In DMK’s assembly election manifesto, it was explicitly mentioned that DMK will abolish NEET if they come to power.  After coming to power, the state government constituted a high power committee under the leadership of retired judge Justice AK Rajan to understand the adverse effects of NEET, particularly on socially backward, rural Tamil-medium students, to know the impact on federal polity and to suggest the steps to eliminate NEET. This is known as the “Report of the High Level Committee to Study the Impact of NEET on Medical Admissions in Tamil Nadu”, AK Rajan Committee for short. Justice AK Rajan Committee reported five major problems in the system of NEET. They are as follows:

1) NEET tests the academic abilities of the concerned student population using “biased common standards and criteria.”

2) NEET does not test the academic abilities developed by the concerned students over their entire academic life.

3) NEET does not “predict” the success of the students in their higher studies (after being admitted based on the NEET).

4) NEET promotes coaching as opposed to learning.

5) NEET is more vulnerable to charges of cultural, regional, linguistic, and socio economic biases.

The points have been explained in detail below:

  1. NEET tests the academic abilities of the concerned student population using “biased common standards and criteria”:

The committee raised apprehensions over the nature of content of NEET. It says that this standardised testing is in rote framework and it assess the content of only three subjects (Biology, Physics, and Chemistry). The test does not consists broad based set of standards and criteria. It also raises doubts over the ability of the exam to correlate the student’s performance in MBBS. Further, the report argues that, the test is in favour of CBSE, not state boards.

It also observes that how the share of CBSE students in MBBS has increased since the NEET became compulsory criteria to get into the Medical Education. It says, “The students from the CBSE stream have secured MBBS seats as high as 26.83% in 2020-21 from 0% in 2015-16 in government medical colleges and 12.01% in 2020-21 from a negligible 0.07% in 2015-16 in self-financed colleges in this high-stakes exam.” NEET does not assess the achievement or aptitude of a student but rather it uses standardised criteria-reference test. It simply duplicates the board exams and creates double hardship for the students.

Justice AK Rajan report shows how NEET disadvantages poor candidates

2. NEET does not test the academic abilities developed by the concerned students over their entire academic life:

Over the period of time in the school, students learn continuously. In this period, a student develops reasoning and increases aptitude. So, the need does not test those aspects, rather, the test keeps aside continuum of knowledge access and ‘scholastic achievements. The committee showed its concern over this by saying, in the ‘continuum of knowledge acquisition’ a student develops some abilities like scholastic achievement and aptitude and this should be the focus of standardised testing.

The committee feels, assessment of scholastic achievement and aptitude in the context of continuum acquisition of knowledge is possible through school boards by using verbal type intelligence test and practical tests over the period of time. Here, the committee attempts to define NEET as “it is content based multiple-choice test. Over reliance on such a test, would lead teachers to emphasize exercises that would promote rote learning, foster test-taking skills, and discourage complex thinking and higher order skilling.”

3. NEET does not “predict” the success of the students in their studies in MBBS:

The rationale behind the introduction of standardise testing is also to predict the ability to do good in the higher studies of medical education i.e MBBS in India. In the context of SAT, the standardised test was conducted to assess the readiness of a higher secondary student for higher studies. So, the idea of NEET ideally is to predict the success of a higher secondary level student in the medical education. In the context of SAT, the predictor is on the basis of high school grades and SAT score but in the context of NEET predictor is solely dependent on how a student performs in the NEET.

The committee argues that, “an examination, on subject matters like physics, chemistry and biology, not placed in the continuum of the realm of learning, would not connect the subject-learning with the learning- assessment. The NEET, being a discrete, one-off test, without any connections whatsoever with learning experience cannot predict precisely the subject potential and readiness of the students for higher studies.” Further, the committee argues in favour of board exams because as per the committee “board examinations is comparatively a reasonable yardstick to measure and predict the student’s academic ability and readiness to pursue medical education.”

4. NEET promotes coaching as opposed to learning:

The committee argues that to judge and assess the predictability of a student for higher studies, the entire journey of academic life of a student should be considered and it shall not orient towards necessity of having prior coaching for such tests. If the nature of standardised tests become in such that without prior coaching a student is hardly able to qualify, then the such situation will help the affluent and privileged students with cultural and economic capital. Mushrooming coaching centres in the state and country and growing coaching market indicates that how dependent is NEET type standardised testing on the coaching. These type of tests only promotes coaching not learning.

The committee further argues that, “coaching has replaced learning and paved the way for the entry of poorly skilled candidates (who are financially and socially strong) belonging to the affluent segment of the society into medical education. The NEET, however, by its very nature, inadvertently attracts prior preparation in the form of coaching and destroys the “learning” – and made learning already redundant – which is very much a fundamental element of “education” and converts students like machines.”

5. NEET is more vulnerable to charges of cultural, regional, linguistic, and socio economic biases:

India is a multi-cultural and diverse nation. This society is very diverse and segregated and graded hierarchically on the basis of caste, class, region, gender, language, educational background etc. The committee argues that, instead of addressing the inequality and social stratification, NEET will reinforce the inequalities and discriminations on the basis of above mentioned variables. The committee has referred the observations of Madras High Court in this context and said, “common entrance test is advantageous to: the aristocrat schools imparting education to students of graduate parents; coaching centres imparting coaching to students for fees; students of elite people devote full time in studying with comfort; parents who attend the care of their children for their studies; students of highly qualified parents; and disadvantageous to: students of illiterate parents.”

Earlier in 2006 Anandakrishnan Committee had also argued in the favour of common entrance test of Tamil Nadu by citing TNCET is disadvantageous to the vulnerable section of the student population. This proves that the arguments put forward against NEET are not merely petty political opposition to central government interference, as the proponents of NEET at the central level have argued, but against such improper methods of standardization and hyper-competition, even if introduced at the state level. 

NEET and Standardised Practice across the globe:

In the next section the committee compares NEET with various standardised testing across the globe to know whether the tests across the globe considers the issues of ability, skills, contents of the subject in the entrance tests and admission criteria following the test conducted. In this regard the committee has analysed various standardised testing practices of United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and China. The committee found some pattern in those standardised tests. They are:

1) Composite nature of the tests:

These tests are blending of testing logical reasoning, aptitude and little knowledge of the subjects. The tests will be based on common standard, not on the basis of defined syllabus. But in the context of NEET defined syllabus is used and logical reasoning and aptitude is not assessed. This has led to rote learning in the context of NEET.

2) Admission criteria is not only around entrance test:

Rather it considers all round parameters such as performance in the board exams, social inclinations and services, personality, and socio-economic advantage/disadvantage.

3) Test scores are not mandatory:

Here, the test scores will be used only for the purpose of screening and institutions have autonomy to use the test score or ignore the scores. In the context of NEET, state and universities does not have autonomy to use the NEET score or leave them rather it is compulsory to admit the students into medical education solely on the basis of NEET ranking.

The committee observes that, “With this one could conclude that the NEET has exceeded all acceptable scientific forms and principles of an entrance exam, and the union government making it mandatorily a sole criterion for admission into medical colleges, is a flaw, eccentrically and an injustice against both the spirit of the constitution and people of the country.”

(To be Continued…)

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