China’s Gaokao is the world’s biggest college admission test. Even satellites are used to track real-time feedback. NTA, whose scale of operation is comparable, can
learn from such exam systems
China’s Gaokao is the world’s biggest college admission test. Even satellites are used to track real-time feedback. NTA, whose scale of operation is comparable, can learn from such exam systemsPhoto | AFP

NTA 2.0: Spaceman’s countdown to launch countless careers

The future of India lies in the critical and creative capabilities of its youth, and not in the exam-cracking capabilities of tactful humanoids that the existing system has been generating.

An interview began with the question, “What is your name?” Pat came the reply, “Give me four choices.” Welcome to the world of multiple-choice question-based competitive exams, in which you are either trained to eliminate the wrong choices, find the right one in the shortest possible time, or ignore the question fearing negative marks.

The coaching class hubs of Kota, Sikar, Noida and other scattered factory models have collectively created a craze unparalleled in the history of competitive exams in India, which is a gateway to millions of young people wanting to become doctors and engineers. This gateway, unfortunately, has also given way to ‘secret keys’ in the form of question paper leaks, ‘solver gangs’ as a service, and other questionable bubbles that burst shockingly to put 2024’s college admissions in a quandary.

With the stakes and tempers soaring high, the Union Ministry of Education (MoE) swung into action—it called for a CBI investigation and formed a high-level committee to reform the National Testing Agency (NTA), responsible for conducting massive exams such as the JEE, CUET and NEET. Most importantly, it assured students of a secure and uncompromised future. As it begins to chart the NTA’s future, the task before the committee is manifold.

Globally, admission to undergraduate or graduate professional degree programmes is a streamlined affair. In two of the world’s largest higher education systems—in the US and China—the role of exam agencies is noteworthy. The College Entrance Examination Board in the US was conceptualised in Columbia University in 1900 with help from the legendary Harvard University president, Charles Eliot. Its pre-World War admission test was initially termed elitist and many post-war reforms made it one of the best managed standardised testing agencies.

The ‘education anarchy’, where each post-secondary institution had its own entrance exam, was demolished by the College Board, which conducted the SAT, AP and BigFuture exams. It outsourced exams such as GRE and TOEFL to another non-profit, Education Testing Services. Started in 1947, this too is one of the largest private non-profit exam agencies. These twin agencies, which are professionally governed with an inclusive leadership, serve the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and institutions. Their major initiatives—Equity 2000, Pacesetter and Transition 2000—create innovative assessments that not only align with equitable policy change in governments and institutions around the world, but also ensure diversity at all levels.

Gaokao, the Nationwide Unified Examination for Admissions to General Universities and Colleges in China, is the world’s largest assessment for undergraduate admissions. Started in 1954, this is administered by the Chinese education ministry in collaboration with local governments.

The entire nation works in unison to ensure the Gaokao is conducted in a student-friendly manner. Year 2024 saw about 13.4 million students cramming for Gaokao to make this spectacle of meritocracy a working reality. Drones swarming in the air, police personnel stationed to prevent untoward incidents, public transport and taxis prioritising test-takers, popular icons sharing wishes—all this can be seen around Gaokao time every June. China Post ensures the safe transport of exam papers with police protection.

A satellite system is used to track real-time feedback, ensuring that the integrity of the exam is not compromised and porous vulnerabilities are plugged. Other global examples include the University Clinical Aptitude Test in the UK and the Medical College Admission Test in the US. All of them are conducted on a massive scale and in a student-friendly manner.

The Indian experience calls for certain reforms aligned with global best practises.

The NTA’s three big responsibilities—the JEE, NEET and CUET—apart from UGC-NET, CMAT, GPAT, SWAYAM  and others, make it one of the world’s largest testing agencies with a capacity to mark three lakh tests per day. Year 2023 saw almost 13 million student registrations, reaching close to the gargantuan peak of the Gaokao. The NTA is comparable with global peers like the College Board, Education Testing Services and Gaokao. Such a big role means bigger responsibilities, as the NTA shapes the life and career of millions. Sensing this, the MoE has rightly embarked on an honest exercise to reform the NTA into a vehicle that would transport students to their aspired futures.

There are certain global best practices and local customisations that the high-level committee headed by former ISRO chief K Radhakrishnan will definitely consider. The committee needs to cover the key success factors for entrance exams conducted on the NTA’s scale and the speed needed to meet student aspirations. Some of them are related to governance and leadership, technology adoption, disruptive influencers, frequency of attempts, assessment scope, blending school and competitive exam scores for admissions, reducing the coaching factory model to address learning differences and creative testing models.

A quiver full of such triggering concerns awaits the committee’s calibrated pathway for students to navigate the entrance exam maze. The future of India lies in the critical and creative capabilities of its youth, and not in the exam-cracking capabilities of tactful humanoids that the existing system has been generating. Chartering into unexplored territories is not going to be new for this committee headed by a spaceman. We hope NTA 2.0 will be a countdown to launch countless students’ hopes.

(Views are personal) 

S Vaidhyasubramaniam | Vice-Chancellor & Tata Sons Chair Professor of management, SASTRA University

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