With the country achieving new heights in the number of daily COVID-19 infections, the central governmentâ€™s insistence on conducting NEET and JEE exams in September has led to wide criticism from students. Seven states governments have urged the Centre to either postpone or cancel it for this year and have sought the intervention of the courts. In the middle of the pandemic, forcing children to take a high stakes exam which would decide their future, puts the lives of children and their families at risk. Further, wide inequality in access to online classes and academic support during the pandemic would affect students from poor, rural and marginalised backgrounds. On that front, it is heartening that at least some states have come forward in protest. But the need for such a national exam in the first place warrants deeper interrogation.
There are several reasons attributed to the need for a common medical entrance exam. Lack of rigour/quality of the earlier exams, stopping corruption, pushing government schools to work better, standardisation across the country to reduce the number of exams is some of the more prominent ones. A brief survey of admissions data and media reports from the last couple of years would tell a completely different story.
The idea that NEET (and other such standardised exams) brings in the most meritorious and capable students is popular. In fact, it is even found in the recent Madras High Court judgment about OBC reservations wherein the bench observes that there is no question of lack of merit through such a reservation because children seeking it have already qualified NEET. In reality, there is little evidence to claim NEET (or any single high stakes test for that matter) to be a predictor of the quality of doctors it produces or that the those who graduated from previous modes of selection were any less capable. In fact, Tamil Nadu, which is pointed to have achieved 2030 national targets on indicators like neonatal mortality rate and under five mortality rate for instance, did so with a vast majority of doctors who graduated from a state syllabus based school final exam, which is dubbed lesser in quality. Improvement in health parameters entails increased spending on public health and expanding access to institutions. It is preposterous to think that a single exam with multiple choice questions can help find a great candidate for a doctor, let alone change the health system.
NEET widens inequality, hurts marginalised
Further such notions of merit and quality are often rooted in upper-caste supremacist ideas, as it has been seen with JEE. They disproportionately affect marginalised children, majority of whom study in government and low budget private schools. In Tamil Nadu, the number of children from government schools who joined medical colleges has dropped from more than 80 to hardly one or two post NEET. I can say with confidence that such will be the case in other states. Data further suggest that almost every child who obtained a medical seat last year in TN, had attended coaching centres. This clearly shows what NEET can be an absolute predictor of, is the ability to afford such coaching.
Can an exam like NEET force the public education system to perform better? While there is evidence from other countries about standardised common exams pushing schools to be more accountable, there are several negative implications, a prominent one being widening inequity, as stated above. The gap in learning outcomes of government schools is a complex problem and would require years to comprehend and work on. There is a need to revisit what such scores even means, given the wide variety of non-school factors influencing performance in exams. Imposing an inaccessible exam at this stage would only hurt the prospects and aspirations of poor and marginalised children. The marginal improvement in scores due to such exams do not outweigh such a huge cost.
Further, such tests lead to constriction of what children learn in schools and teachers are forced to teach only those concepts that are important for the exam. The sharp rise in the number of â€śschoolsâ€ť specialising in NEET coaching serve as an example.
Secondly, reports of fake domicile certificates, and impersonators taking exams in the place of students also disprove claims about reducing corruption. Moreover, it is an open secret that management quota admissions continue to exist, and students pay lakhs and crores to secure a seat.
Undermines rights of states
Finally, the reason for the exam being standardization across states for the welfare of students outside a particular state does not justify the need for NEET. The proportion of seats that are open to admission for students for the All India Quota could have been done through the already existing national test (AIPMT), which many states were already using. Expanding the idea of a national exam to the state-quota seats is nothing more than a blatant affront to the rights of state governments to decide on their educational affairs, about institutions that were built with statesâ€™ land and resources.
The states are diverse in their systems and syllabi. They are at different levels of progress and have unique socio-economic factors at play and challenges to deal with. NEET has achieved nothing but undermined the rights of the states to decide on their fates of their children. That there was no reprieve given to students who wrote the exam in Tamil in with erroneous mistranslated questions in 2018, is evidence enough to see how the Centre has little regard for aspirations of such students.
As we remember Anitha on her death anniversary on September 1, Tamil Nadu will once again raise the call to abolish NEET. The state has had a long history of viewing exams through the lens of social justice. Karunanidhi government scrapped the state level engineering entrance exams in 2006 and it has only led to expanded opportunities for children from diverse backgrounds.
It is time that other states join in asking for their rights back. They have little to lose and they can ensure thousands of Anithas live to pursue their dreams.
Krishna Kala Baskaran is a former teacher, assistant school leader, and currently studies Education at Tata Institute of Social Sciences - Mumbai. Views expressed are the author's own.