The entire country is disturbed by the inability of the system to conduct crucial exams that determine the lives and careers of millions of students. After the NEET and UGC NET exam fiascos, the National Teaching Agency (NTA) has become the whipping boy in several quarters. The government has removed the NTA director and investigating agencies have swung into action to nab the culprits. Some arrests have reportedly been made. Fixing accountability for the current crisis is no doubt necessary. More needs to be done. Unless a robust and systematic solution to ensure the probity of such mass-scale testing is found, it might be difficult to avoid similar tragedies in the future.

The problem at hand is disturbing. First, the selection for professional courses is done through a single high-stakes exam. This pushes most students to cramming the learning material and coaching centers flourish. The purpose of these coaching centers is to train students to crack exams, not understand the subject at the conceptual level. The coaching industry is known to make insane amounts of profits, while students go through a personality-stunting experience that lasts two years or more.

Second, aptitude is usually not the basis for selection in the field of study or a branch within that. In engineering, for instance, in the past five years, the number of students who graduate from institutes has come down by 40 percent – ​​this shows the lack of students’ interest after they secure admission.

Third, the school system, especially the higher classes (11th and 12th), has been undermined, and yielded place to coaching institutions. Holistic personality development, envisaged in several policy documents, including the National Education Policy 2020, is sacrificed at the altar of a rote-based learning process.

Fourth, the school boards are in shambles, the assessment system is archaic and evaluation mechanisms are not standardized. Both the 10th and 12th Class Board exams are summative assessments (the evaluation takes place at the end of the academic year) which encourage students to cram the learning material. NEP 2020 has unequivocally talked about replacing the current summative assessment system with formative and competency-based assessments. However, the 2022-23 deadline set by the policy for implementing this reform is long past. Urgent steps are, therefore, required to achieve the policy’s objectives.

Festive offer

Finally, our inability to conduct exams on a large scale is very disturbing. The NTA was set up in 2017 to conduct these exams professionally using online computer-based procedures. Unfortunately, we have continued with the pen/paper exams, which are known to be prone to fraudulent practices.

The conundrum requires robust and systemic solutions. The first step is to change the selection process for all major admissions in higher education (medical, engineering, management) institutions and introduce a continuous assessment system over a two-year period.

We propose the following.

One, 40 percent weightage could be assigned to eight quarterly academic assessments (over two years) conducted online using a standardized question bank. These tests can be taken on any day, within the school premises. These online tests will be proctored by the use of Artificial Intelligence-based fraud detection systems. Question banks can be built up to test critical thinking and conceptual understanding as well as to assess the ability of a student to use concepts for problem-solving.

Two, 40 percent weightage could be assigned for social and professional aptitude. To ascertain this, we propose two six-week long internships with select institutes connected with the subject of study. We also propose mandatory participation in NSS/NCC or select programs aimed at social upliftment.

Three, 20 percent weightage should be accorded to the final NEET/JEE exam. This exam should be conducted online, at least twice a year, allowing the student to choose the best score for the final reckoning.

Currently, there are several doubts about the education system’s capacity to conduct these exams. Technology can be used to overcome these challenges.

A robust question bank, online testing and AI-based proctoring (the algorithm is trained to register even the minutest of discrepancies and suspicion) can enhance the system’s credibility. Since all teachers will be contributing to the question bank, and all items will be tested for the level of difficulty, it would be a participatory system — one following the objectives of NEP 2020.

Each student will get a different set of questions within a similar difficulty range and the IT system will be pre-programmed to rank them. There are internationally-accepted statistical tools to ensure a similar range of difficulty between different tests and achieve parity of scores. This will of course require cyber security protocols that match up to global standards. Institutes such as the Indian Statistical Institute and IITs can be roped in to design the exam protocols. They can hand-hold the exam conducting authorities across the country and build up their credibility and capacity.

This system could bring back focus on schools. Assessment systems in school education need to be reformed to test concept-based understanding, thereby fulfilling the mandate of NEP 2020. The stakes involved in a single exam will be eliminated. That could be an important step towards the elimination of examination fraud.

Subrahmanyam is former Education Secretary, Government of India and Bhattacharya is former Chairman, Coal India. Views expressed are personal