Representative Image.
Representative Image.(Representational Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)

NEET woes: The multiple-choice question format should be scrapped for fair assessment

As with any highly competitive exam in India, NEET is no exception to cut-throat competition.

India is not new to examination scams. Corruption starts young in a country starved of ethics and morality. But the NEET examination scandal that has broken out now would be perhaps the most stupidly organised corruption scandal.

For years, the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test for admissions to India’s resource-crunched medical colleges has been mired in controversy. In a nation facing a severe shortage of doctors, over 2.5 million hopefuls sit for a three-hour and 20-minute multiple-choice exam, vying for admission to about 10,900 seats across 706 medical colleges throughout India.

As with any highly competitive exam in India, NEET is no exception to cut-throat competition. As a result, there is a thriving industry of coaching centres where teenagers are given shortcuts and simplified methods to conquer the multiple-choice examination.

Instead of comprehending the material, the pressure is on to quickly answer multiple-choice questions. The demand for enrollment in these coaching centres is so high that there are now ones specifically for gaining admission to top-tier coaching centres. This competitive frenzy has a dark side, even without leaked exam papers and unfair grading practices.

The constant emphasis on competitiveness hinders students from impoverished backgrounds from pursuing higher education. The secondary education system becomes obsolete as success is measured solely on the ability to solve multiple-choice questions within a set time frame. The exorbitant fee for coaching centres makes higher education unattainable for those who are poor.

India’s rural areas face a critical shortage of doctors. Nevertheless, the NEET exam is structured in a way that advantages students from affluent families in urban centres. These students secure spots in government medical colleges where their education costs are significantly subsidised by taxpayer money. The NEET exemplifies a system designed to be highly discriminatory against the underprivileged and those from rural India.

It is held under extremely strict conditions that resembles a police state. Invigilators watch closely like hawks, CCTV cameras track every movement, and candidates undergo thorough checks for concealed notes or devices. Fingerprint scanners verify the identity of each test-taker to ensure they match the registered candidate. Even India’s nuclear facilities don’t experience this level of scrutiny and security.

It’s absurd to think that a corrupt system of bureaucrats and coaching centres in Gujarat and Bihar has managed to surpass the thoroughness of this examination. It makes the entire process seem like a joke.

We should thank our stars that out of the two-and-a-half million who took the exam, only 67 students could achieve a perfect score of 720 out of 720. Surprisingly, some of these top students have failed in their Class XII exams. Additionally, many students received 718 or 719 marks, which goes against logic and basic math considering the scoring system.

In this exam, answering a multiple-choice question wrongly results in a negative mark, while a correct answer earns four marks. If a candidate doesn’t attempt one question, the maximum they can score is 716. Even if one question is answered incorrectly, the maximum possible mark becomes 715. Despite this, NEET evaluators have given marks like 719 and 718; their reasoning remains a mystery.

Their latest justification is that they gave grace marks to some candidates who were delayed in starting the exam. This turns the entire examination from being objective to subjective. There is no transparency in how, why and to whom these grace marks were given.

Some examination centres, especially in Gujarat, are so blessed that they have produced many toppers in a row. The National Testing Agency expects us to believe that the perfect scores of seven candidates from this exceptional examination centre are a coincidence. It is just incidental that the seven have consecutive enrolment numbers. Meanwhile, news is coming from Bihar that question papers were sold for amounts ranging from Rs 30-50 lakh.

The clandestine advancement of the NEET exam results by 10 days to align with the general election results suggests an attempt to obscure the scandal amid the commotion following the elections. It is disappointing how the courts have taken this farce so lightly and postponed the hearing of the case filed against it to July 8. It has refused to stay in the admission process, thus again denying justice to those who can’t beat the system using money, corruption or influence.

If the elected government has any commitment to the youth of the country, they should cancel the NEET results without any delay and order a retest.

This is merely a temporary solution, and in the long run, we need to shift away from the multiple-choice question format for competitive exams. Doing so would dismantle the power of coaching centres and create a fairer environment for everyone. This nation doesn’t belong solely to the wealthy and powerful manipulating the system through corrupt and unjust methods. Even if the above statement is not true, shouldn’t we at least pretend that there is some justice and fairness left in this country? Or have we lost even that fig leaf of shame in our blatant selfish and competitive pursuit?

Anand Neelakantan

Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy

The New Indian Express