Saturday, April 17, 2004

Paper bazaar
The great examination

Reports on the leak of the papers of the All India Pre-Medical Test last week, coming as they did, close on the heels of such reports about exams ranging from CAT to Punjab board papers, have raised serious doubts about the credibility of the examination system, writes Smriti Kak Ramachandran

IT is no longer a leak, this business of question papers finding their way to the market before the examination date. It is a regular seasonal flood, which taken at its tide leads the racketeers to a fortune at the expense of unfortunate students. In the last 12 months, there have been a rash of exam paper leaks. However, this is not the first time. It happened in the days before the last pre-medical test too; and before that of other examination papers in the 1990s, the 1980s and doctors recall that there were leaks of medical entrance exam papers as early as 1972. So, whatís new, now? The scale of the racket, the network that criss-crosses the country and the increasing number of institutions, courses and sections of people caught in the web of sleaze. And, of course, the amounts involved.

From centres of excellence to local schools, institutions of all hues are getting entangled in a web that threatens their integrity. And while the blame game continues, with accusations flying between the authorities and men like Ranjit Don ó the main accused in the racket ó many questions demand attention. The foremost being whether one can really trust public exams.

"Itís a shame"

Bhavya VasudevaIt is shocking and disheartening to have question papers leaked. Donít the examination authorities realise that it takes months of rigorous preparations to take the PMT. And, whatís the guarantee that in the past too question papers of a medical entrance examination or an engineering test have not been leaked. ó Bhavya Vasudeva, who has been preparing for the PMT for the past several months.

The Chairman of the CBSE should own moral responsibility for the leakage. Students who manage a medical degree after paying for the question paper would affect the quality of medicare in the country.ó Dr R.S.Bedi, a Chandigarh-based pediatrician whose daughter is appearing in the PMT.

R.S. GorayaIt is a shame on the nation. I was present at the Sector 46 school on April 10, when unsuspecting students came to appear for the test. Upon learning of the leakage, the candidates and their parents coming from far off areas had no words to express their anguish. ó R.S. Goraya, Principal of the Government Model Senior Secondary School, Sector 46, Chandigarh.

Sarita ManujaSarita ManujaThe system as a whole has failed. Responsible persons should put their heads together so that such a failure in the examination system is never repeated. ó Sarita Manuja, Principal of DAV Public School, Sector 8, Chandigarh.

RupaliI donít feel like studying for these examinations anymore. Whatís the point when you know that there are some candidates who already have the question paper. ó Rupali, who will be appearing for entrance tests by the AFMC and Panjab University.

D.S. BediStrict action should be taken against the erring persons and the punishment should be exemplary. ó D.S. Bedi, President of the Independent Schools Association, Chandigarh

Earlier only the wayward or unprepared student headed out to find the exam papers. Now it has become an enterprise with many students, parents, teachers, heads of schools and government officials joining hands or becoming willing victims. The scale and sweep of the trade is evident from the price at which the exam papers sell when they hit the market ó Rs 2 to 7 lakh, which, as the buyers swell by the hour, rapidly plunges to as low as Rs 5 or 10 by the evening of that day. Predictably, any venture so flourishing requires the expertise of the underworld which brings with it the criminalisation of an educational exercise.

"It most certainly shatters the credibility of the institution, and shakes the confidence of the people, but we must not see this (paper leak) as something peculiar to just one institution, it is a big social problem. The youngsters donít foresee a bright future for themselves, there is immense competition and there are parents who are ready to buy papers for their children", says Prof. J S Rajput, Director, National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

Students who cannot cough up the absurd amounts of money for admission and rely instead on mastering voluminous syllabi are the worst sufferers. "We study hard and all this while we are conscious of the fact that somewhere a Ranjit Don is secretly working to rob us of a legitimate seat," complains Rajat Sharma, a student who often wonders whether he will make it on the basis of merit.

"The last few months have been a nightmare. Institutions like AIIMS and IIMs are plagued by this malaise. And surprisingly the blame rests on the shoulders of Ranjit Don. But what about the insiders? Surely there have to be black sheep within the examination system. What about nailing them?" questions Sumeet Kumar (name changed), a Delhi University lecturer.

The year gone by witnessed successive scandals rocking the countryís examination system. It began with the smuggling of answer sheets of higher and senior secondary classes of the CBSE in May 2003 followed by the CAT paper leak in November. The New Year saw AIIMS embroiled in a similar controversy in January and Kerala too fighting a battle to restore the credibility of the Kerala Public Service Commission (PSC), which made news for a series of question paper leaks.

March witnessed the Punjab School Education Board paper leak. The leak of Class IX papers of Delhi government schools hit the headlines as did the leak of the chemistry paper for Class XII of the Uttar Pradesh Education Board. The Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Education had a similar story to tell. Mumbai University too stood shamed by one paper leak after another.

Institutions like AIIMS and the CBSE chose to rely on the Central Bureau of Investigation to find the answers. The CBSE Chairman Ashok Ganguly did hint at a "weak link", but could not put his finger on the "exact weak point". And while the sleuths and various committees are on the job trying to nail miscreants like Ranjit Don, there are concerns whether such leaks can be prevented.

"If you expect students to mug and vomit text written about 20 years ago, incidents like these are bound to keep happening. Encourage credit and grading system, and not cramming", suggests Sumeet Kumar.

His views are echoed by Dr S R Arora, Principal, Hansraj College, Delhi, who vehemently asserts, "Ban the coaching centres also. Doing so will restore the importance of good school and college education, teachers will be compelled to give their best and money will not play any role in education".

A gamut of issues are raised. Are the paper leak rackets, the falling standards in education and corruption all inter-linked? There are a few who claim that teachers, also blamed for the incidents, are "just as much under pressure as students". Says Kamal Kishore (name changed), a schoolteacher in a Delhi-Government-run school, "Low salary and stressful working conditions are driving us to take coaching classes. If we do not help students score above 90 per cent or ensure their entry into a professional college, who will come to us?" He concedes that some coaching classes are "a racket". "They ask the students for money, which they pay the authorities in institutions and earn themselves more money and a good name".

Cynicism is fast replacing whatever little faith people had in these exams. "Parents and students are cynical towards public exams. Nowadays parents have two objectives, one to provide the best education and second, to look out for people like Ranjit Don", feels R Sinha, a media person who has been following the successive paper leaks.

Apart from the fact that leaks tarnish the image of the exam system, these wreak the emotional well-being of students. "Good students who are serious about a career begin preparing for these exams in Class X and when there is a paper leak they are completely demoralised", claims Dr Anil Bansal, former President of the Delhi Medical Association.

And once the examinations are cancelled, rescheduling is not easy. The CBSE, which was at the receiving end for not immediately disclosing the new schedule, pleaded that it needed time to co-ordinate with various centres and draw up a schedule which would not interrupt other examinations.

However, despite the rescheduling of the exam there were disappointed students, robbed of a chance to take an exam which could pave the way for a bright future. "I have to skip the CBSE exam, because I have to be back in Patna for my engineering exam on the very next morning. I have to make a choice and it isnít easy", rues Niharika Sinha.

Others, some from the lower economic strata, are worried about the expenditure both in terms of money and effort that goes waste each time an exam is cancelled.

Academicians are worried that with deserving candidates not being given a chance, institutions might be "swamped by the mediocre and the incompetent". "Strict action should be taken against the culprits, including the coaching centres. Only then can you eradicate the meance,"offers Dr Bansal.

He adds, "This had happened in 1972 also when AIIMS and the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC) were plagued by paper leaks masterminded by coaching centres. So the government has to first focus on these rackets".

Just pinpointing the causes is not enough, remedies are also needed. "We need a value-based education system We need to set up institutions which are credible", points out Rajput.

Dr. Arora adds, "Education should be kept away from politics. Let politicians have nothing to do with education". Prof. Z H Khan of Jamia Milia Islamia goes further. "In a system which is vast, it is always difficult to keep track of and plug loopholes. One needs a system that is reliable. We at JMI conduct our own exams. The administration is more alert. Besides if there is only one system there is a problem. We have to provide students with more than one option".