On college admissions in Tamil Nadu: +2 exams vs. Entrance exam

The NEET has raised a debate over the admission criteria of higher education colleges in Tamil Nadu. Generally,  the college admission is based on performance in an entrance test, with women and caste based quotas, as an affirmative action measure. Tamil Nadu did away with the entrance test in 2007. Since then, admissions to these colleges are based on performance on +2 marks. The cited rationale is that entrance tests disadvantage rural students.

People are citing three different arguments to base admissions on +2 marks and not NEET.

1. NEET, an entrance exam puts rural students at a disadvantage because they often don't have the resources to take coaching.

2. The "merit" based approach (NEET) is flawed because merit is a function of family background and not necessarily an individual's efforts. Hence, we should have an equitable entrance exam, for which everyone has access. The +2 board exams fit this criterion and NEET doesn't. This is an extension of the first argument.

3. TN's approach to higher education is to provide higher education exposure to the maximum number of students possible, what is called the "upper funnel approach". Hence, the pass percentage is high as compared to other states. NEET does away with this.

Though the above concerns are genuine, they still don't make a strong case for using +2 exams as the criterion instead of an entrance examination. The problems with the above arguments are as follows. Broadly there are two issues - the design of +2 exams, and the best way to correct "birth privileges".

Issues with the design of exam:

1. Eligibility vs. Ordering: Eligibility is getting minimum marks while admission to different colleges is based on ordering (rank) and not on minimum marks.

The "upper funnel approach" (TN's strategy to provide exposure to higher education) confuses between eligibility and ordering.

If providing higher exposure is the concern, TN can have "passing +2 exams" as the criteria, while allocating seats based on NEET. This won't harm the purpose of providing exposure to higher education. Thus, this can't be a reason to reject NEET.

2. Eligibility exam vs. Selection exam: A lot of this confusion is because of the lack of appreciation of the concepts of "qualification exams" vs. "selection exams".

In the theory of test design, there are two types of exams - qualification exams and selection exams. These exams are differentiated based on their capability to "differentiate the candidates".

For instance, if I ask a room full of graduates "What is 1+1?". Everyone will answer "2". So, I can't make a reasonable judgment about the ability of the candidates based on this question. This question (1+1) thus can't differentiate between people. It can, however, be an eligibility. If a person can't even answer 1+1, then one can reject that candidate. But, one can select because someone answered 1+1.

Thus, problems arise when we use "qualification exams" to "select" students. Qualification exams are supposed to test minimum criteria, they don't have "differentiation capability". They can't be used to make a reasonable estimation of the capability of the candidates.

This is exactly the case with +2 exams and NEET. +2 exams are qualification exams. Often, the questions in these exams are rote based, are repeated across years, and are prone to mark inflation. One of my friends points out that there are around 1000 seats in Anna University and around 600+ students get "100%" marks in +2 exams. It is a clear reflection of the differentiation capability of +2 exams. This is the equivalent of 1+1 question above. Entrance exams also have instances of people scoring same marks, but they are at later ranks, not in the top range.

Just to clarify, it doesn't mean that people getting 100% marks don't have capability. It just means that when a large number of people get those marks, you can't differentiate between people. As in the above example of 1+1, everyone can answer it, including Einstein and others. Answering the question doesn't mean that Einstein doesn't have the capability. It just means that Einsteins can't be differentiated by questioning 1+1. If it's used, we treat all as Einsteins, which is unfair.

+2 marks can hence be used to permit students to pursue the college education but they can't be used to order students, in other words, to select students to Anna University or to decide the branches within Anna University.

In short, +2 exams and entrance exams serve different purposes. One is for testing basic competencies, other is for selection. It's better to keep both separate.

3. Using +2 marks is more immoral than entrance exam: Access to resources is the problem with entrance examination and hence admissions based on these results is termed immoral. But, using +2 marks is more immoral because it is a lottery for all practical purposes.

As noted above, if there are only 1000 seats in Anna University and the first 600 people get same marks, the allocation is done based on "birth year" and a "random number allocated to the candidate". This is essentially a lottery. A person may miss a seat in a particular branch, merely because of getting a wrong lottery number.

If randomness of the place of birth is considered immoral, this random allocation is equally immoral. If anything, a hard working rural student might get treated equally with a non-hardworking urban candidate in this procedure. It levels everyone.

4. +2 exams seem equitable because of marks inflation and not due to equal access: One of the arguments is that using +2 marks is an equitable criterion because of the lower barriers to access to +2 colleges as compared to exam coaching centres. This isn't true.

+2 marks seem equitable only because the exams are of poor standard and marks are inflated. The moment we try to enhance the standards of these exams and test real understanding, the same problems with entrance exams kick in.

So, we shouldn't be misled by the mask of high marks scoring capability in +2 exams, for being an equitable exam.

5. +2 exams are important of rote learning: Year end exams influence the nature of teaching in class rooms. If the exams are based on questions that require rote learning, the learning in classroom is also geared towards that. If the exams ask questions involving a deep understanding of cconcepts classroom learning also strives to achieve that.

In India, +2 exams are as rote as an exam can get. The questions are usually from the exercises at the end of the chapter. Students are tested repeatedly on these same questions, so that they reproduce appropriately.

Using +2 exams for admission to engineering and medical entrance will increase the stakes and only promote rote learning.

On merit:

1. Differentiating efforts within the group and between groups: The arguments of "higher income" and "urban" advantages are genuine but such comparison "between groups" misses a point.

Many students with "urban" or "higher income" criteria write the exam. Not everyone qualifies. Attributing ranks to only these criteria fails to appreciate the "efforts factor" that differentiate between the qualifiers and non-qualifiers within the "urban", "higher income" groups.

A hard working "urban" student should thus be differentiated from another "urban" student that didn't put required efforts. Similarly, a "rural" student that didn't put required efforts should be differentiated from a hard working "rural" student with a similar background.

+2 exams don't do that because of their poor differentiating capability, as discussed above. With a high number of students scoring top marks, seat allocation parallels a lottery for all practical purposes. It does disservice to students, as it fails to differentiate students "within groups" (urban or rural) and places everyone on the same plane.

Remember that attempts to enhance the quality of +2 exams, thereby increasing their differentiating capability, will again lead to the same concerns cited regarding entrance exams (access to quality colleges or coaching).

2. We already correct for "place of birth": All the above arguments suggest that +2 marks aren't an appropriate criterion for ordering the candidates. But, the question of privilege of birth that determines performance in entrance exams still remains. It is true that accident of birth plays a significant role. There's no denying.

However, one must note that we already correct for such vagaries of birth in the form of caste-based and gender-based quotas in college admissions.

We can definitely have caste and gendered based quotas, and we should have, but we will only be fooling ourselves and students if we try to address the problem by inflating the marks.

Thus, overall, using +2 marks for ordering students is a very bad idea.

Finally, as Akilan points out, TN stopped collecting "rural/urban" data of students. He asks "Where is the government data on admission of rural students? Are we just whipping emotions using anecdotes that fit our narrative?"

Thanks to Akilan for educating me on this topic. I benefitted from discussions with him.

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