Explainer: How NEET has exposed the standard of science education in Tamil Nadu

How do TN students measure up against their peers in south India?
Explainer: How NEET has exposed the standard of science education in Tamil Nadu
Explainer: How NEET has exposed the standard of science education in Tamil Nadu
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The NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) imbroglio will do more good than harm for the future of Tamil Nadu, if the state government gears up and institutes a series of reforms.

Most of the debates around NEET, the medical entrance examination are focussed on the Central government infringing on the rights of the state government in the field of education. This article is not about who is right or wrong. It is about what is good for the future of Tamil Nadu’s children.

Keep in mind that NEET is impacting only 3,377 MBBS and 1,190 BDS seats, whereas around 9 lakh students appear for the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examinations every year. Focus has to be on learning as well as competitiveness. How are the students of Tamil Nadu on competitiveness compared to other states? Let’s look at some statistics.

The table below gives pass percentage of the students in the Class 12 (or equivalent) and the corresponding pass percentage in NEET across the South Indian states in the academic year 2015-16. 

Another statistic says, of the 9 lakh students from Tamil Nadu state board, only 13 entered IIT Madras in 2016 and only 33 in 2015. Ironically, Tamil Nadu has more Engineering colleges (571) than every other state.

It is clear from the above that Tamil Nadu students are considerably behind every other neighbouring state in science education. It is also clear that the Tamil Nadu board is extremely liberal in awarding pass marks to its students, many of whom may not have basic proficiency in fundamental subjects.

The performance of Tamil Nadu students in going to institutions of higher learning reflects the state of education in Tamil Nadu.

Let us consider another statistic. State-wise "Mean Achievement Score" in all subjects achieved by the Class 10 students from National Achievement Survey conducted by NCERT in 2015 is given below.

This shows clearly that Tamil Nadu is behind every other southern state and also is below the National average at the high school level.

“National Employability Report 2016”, a study of the employability quotient taken among 1,50,000 engineering students from 650+ engineering colleges across the country, carried out by “Aspiring Minds”, a leading assessment firm is given below:

Thus, Tamil Nadu students are behind the neighbouring states and the national average by Class 10 and are behind the neighbouring states in science education by Class 12 and after college education are at the bottom 25 percentile at the national level.

Even within the state, the rural areas suffer the most.

An affidavit filed in the Madras High Court in a case related to NEET states, “In the past 10 years only 340 students from rural government state board schools have managed to secure medical seats.” That is a mere 1% of the total number of seats. This was the situation when there was no entrance exam for medical colleges.

What can one conclude from the above arguments? Can one say that Tamil Nadu is not adequately spending on school education compared to other south Indian states?

Not really.

Tamil Nadu has better infrastructure for school education than most of the other larger states. Also, it has more per capita income than most of the other major states.

Does it mean other states are doing well? As a passionate participant in the education system, I am not thrilled with the state of education in any of the Indian states. They were in fact not as ambitious as Tamil Nadu in proving a point like trying to make most of its kids into engineers. Tamil Nadu has around 9 lakh students writing Class 12 exams every year and more than a lakh students get into engineering colleges.

But, where is the problem?

Entrance examinations for engineering and medical college admissions were scrapped in 2006 and replaced by a Unified Single Window Counselling System solely based on Class 12 board marks. Coupled with this, the Class 12 question papers were largely derived from questions found in the textbooks and evaluation was liberal, resulting in a very large pass percentage and a considerable number of students getting very high marks. This gave a false sense of confidence to the students that they were extraordinarily gifted children. But after joining engineering, most students failed in subjects such as mathematics.

Since Tamil Nadu had a surfeit of engineering colleges and seats and it did not require writing any entrance exam, Tamil Nadu students simply stopped preparing for entrance exams. They rarely appeared for the entrance exams meant for institutions of importance such as IIT, NIT, IIIT, IISER, Central Universities etc. and were content with joining medical and engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu.

In this backdrop, when NEET was introduced, the students were simply not ready to deal with an entrance exam. Most schools had done away with the Class 11 syllabus and were teaching the Class 12 syllabus, directly after students completed Class 10. NEET, however, requires content from Class 11 as well.

It is thus clear that in the present circumstances, the Tamil Nadu state board students are at a considerable disadvantage in handling NEET or similar entrance examination.

So, what are the possible solutions?

Tamil Nadu’s Department of School Education has rightly recognized the problems and has started working on fixing some of them. They have embarked on a huge exercise to revamp the curriculum, rewrite the textbooks and are also planning to change the evaluation systems. The Class 11 syllabus cannot now be ignored as there will be a public examination for Class 11. It has been announced that marks obtained in Class 11 and Class 12 will be added together for consideration subsequently.

These reforms are not sufficient. Teaching methodologies have to change and technology should be made full use of.

What is the quality of TN government schools?

Justice N Kirubakaran of the Madras High Court recently observed, “Government school teachers placing their children in private schools indicates that all is not well in government schools”

TK Chandrasekaran, a retired government official in Tamil Nadu used RTI in 2009 to find out whether government school teachers in Tamil Nadu educate their own children in government schools or private schools. After two years of persistent follow-ups, he unearthed the following data. (Data Source: Prayatna)

The sample covered 17% of primary and middle school teachers and 29% of high school and higher secondary school teachers. Only 27% of government school teachers sent their children to government primary and middle Schools. Only 13% sent their children to government high school and higher secondary schools.

So, we can conclude that government school teachers are aware that the quality of education is not sufficient in the schools they are teaching and would rather want their children to study in “better” schools. Any parent who can afford to pay the school fees is sending their children to a private school. Only the poorest of the poor children go to government schools. In rural areas, where there are no private schools, every child has to go to the government school. Lack of sufficient teachers, teacher absenteeism, teacher apathy and lack of infrastructure in the government schools are the major reasons why government schools do not produce quality results.

Can digital technology be effectively used to solve some of these problems?

In addition to building toilets, potable water and proper buildings, a school requires a quality library and a reading room, computing facilities and teaching resources accessible to the students. With the falling cost of computers, tablets and reading devices and increasing mobile and internet penetration, it is now possible to equip every school with a decent digital infrastructure at a low cost.

This will enhance the education of government school children in the following ways:

Even if the teachers are absent, students will still have engaging content made available to them in the form of reading material and video.

Video instruction in local languages, produced in an excellent quality, can go a long way in addressing teacher competency.

Motivated teachers can make use of this material effectively in a classroom.

Preparing for entrance examinations can be done much more comfortably through online assessment platforms and question banks along with content tailor-made for competitive exams.

Students will find tablets and internet (with appropriate site controls) a pleasurable experience, allowing them to expand their horizons.

School Management Systems, Learning Management Systems etc. can easily be developed and deployed, and combined with biometric attendance system and other analytics can track both students and teachers and increase accountability.

These platforms can be used to train the teachers and identify star teachers whose teaching methodologies and content can be distributed to other schools.

Digital education can engage students actively with “adaptive learning”.

Governments can partner companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and a host of Indian companies for technology, content, ecosystem, devices and delivery. Partner publishers can produce customised content that can be delivered on a platform like Kindle identified by the government.

This is a highly scalable model. A pilot project can help identify problems which can be ironed out quickly and the model can be rolled out across the state in a time bound manner.

We are living in a time of opportunities and possibilities. The NEET problem can be converted into an opportunity and the quality of education can be drastically improved by resorting to wholescale digital foray.

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