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An idea whose time hasn't come?

The preparation of the Kerala engineering rank-list 2011 runs into rough weather as the office of the Commissioner for Entrance Examinations finds it hard to collect data related to Plus Two examinations from various boards. The need to streamline the normalisation process is a top priority, reports G. MAHADEVAN.

— Photo: H. Vibhu

Anxious wait: Students come out of an examination centre in Kochi after writing the Kerala entrance test this year.

Imagine this. A retired joint commissioner for entrance examinations travelling around the country, meeting officials of various Plus Two examination boards, cajoling them —sometimes pleading — to part with something called the ‘mean' and ‘standard deviation', often having to educate some officials on what ‘normalisation' is and sometimes hoping and praying that a fax he sent to a Board in one corner of India is seen by somebody willing to send a reply.

To cut a long story short, everything that could go ‘abnormal' about the preparation of the Kerala engineering rank list 2011, did. Never before has the office of the Commissioner for Entrance Examinations been so completely at the mercy of the governments of other States and of certain examination boards outside India.

Was the decision to give weight to Plus Two marks in the engineering rank-list a bad policy call? Why, in these days of online counselling, virtual classrooms and ICT-enabled education, cannot a State in India have access to the examination data of another?

Examination boards outside Kerala are under no obligation to provide data that Kerala requires for its own purposes. This unspoken message was very evident in many an interaction that the former joint commissioner had with officials in other States. At one place the Kerala official had to patiently explain what ‘mean' and ‘standard deviation' was.

In another State the Plus Two board official told him that there was no existing practice of taking mean and standard deviation. In yet another instance the official was told that marks-related data could not be sent to Kerala; someone could go there and collect it personally. The funny thing was that there were only a handful of students from many of these boards who had cleared the engineering entrance test.

One examination board outside India even asked the CEE's office to deposit a fee of more than 100 pounds for the marks-related data. The CEE was unable to get the required data from all the six foreign boards whose students had cleared the entrance examination.

Is normalisation worth all this trouble? Seen against the backdrop of the annual uncertainty and confusion that parents and students go through each year on account of the ‘self-financing question', and given the peculiar anxiety that was generated this year by the process of preparing the engineering rank-list, this question assumes great significance.

Why was normalisation — a statistical process of mapping scores of different plus two examinations onto the Kerala higher secondary scores — deemed essential in the first place? The necessity for this process stemmed from the fact that the previous LDF government took a policy call to give equal weight to the marks scored in the Plus Two examinations and to those scored in the engineering entrance examinations while preparing the engineering rank-list.

The logic behind such a decision, in turn, stemmed from the perception that the higher secondary courses were being marginalised and sidelined in the mad rush by students to get trained for getting past the entrance examinations. This, it was argued, gave an undue advantage to those who could afford such training. Combining the marks of the Plus Two examinations would offset this advantage.

But then how does one seamlessly integrate the marks scored in different examinations conducted by boards across India? It was then that a committee set up by the government suggested a formula for ‘normalising' these marks before preparing the engineering rank-list. The accuracy and fairness of this method however was critically dependent on the availability of marks-related data from many agencies.

Finally the normalisation committee decided that wherever data was not available, the marks of the CBSE examinations would be used for normalising the scores of those candidates.

So, again, should Kerala continue with normalisation in the coming years?

Would this scramble for marks, mean and standard deviation be an annual fixture? Would boards that provided marks this year be as cooperative again?

It is true that entrance examinations came into being in Kerala after it was found that admissions based on pre-degree marks was highly unreliable, that universities were prone to inflating marks and that marks-alteration scandals were becoming commonplace.

Though the entrance examinations is a sure-shot, no-hassles way of preparing the engineering rank-list, the logic which drove the LDF government to its decision has found resonance in Kerala. There are many who argue — and with merit — that this decision has brought back the relevance of higher secondary education.

The real problem is not with the policy call.

The real issue here is that there was no concrete mechanism to collect marks-related data from boards within the country and outside it. Officials who ought to have led from the front the data collection drive, vanished from the scene. There appears to have been an overwhelming belief that data could be had for the asking. There was no also effort to involve the MHRD in the data collection process.

Officials involved with the normalisation process and with the preparation of the engineering rank-list this year have floated some remedial measures for this situation. Anyway the normalisation committee had to decide that the CBSE marks would be used for normalising the marks of candidates whose boards do not give the required data. Why can't this be made a permanent mechanism?

“After all the CBSE is a national board and the CEE can advance the argument of fairness if this process is questioned. Map marks from boards outside Kerala to the CBSE marks. Then map it on to the Kerala higher secondary,” suggested one official. Can the marks of all other boards be directly mapped to the Kerala higher secondary scores?

Then there is the method employed by the colleges under the Inter-Church Council. As per this formula, the maximum marks scored in, say, the CBSE examinations for a particular subject and the maximum marks in that subject in the Kerala higher secondary would be deemed to be equal.

Then the standard deviation would be calculated. For all other boards — other than CBSE and ICSE — the marks scored by candidate in the relevant subject would be directly mapped on to the Kerala higher secondary score.

The coordinator of the Kerala Catholic Engineering College Managements' Association P. J. Ignatius told The Hindu-EducationPlus that this method of preparing the rank-list had the approval of the Madras High Court. The Kerala High Court too has seen this method in a favourable light, he said.

Kerala which was among the first States to introduce online counselling for admission to professional courses can well become the first State to make a pitch for a national repository of marks. The National Informatics Centre which provides the software back-up for many examination-related activities in the county may have a solution to this problem.

Among the many things that the UDF government would have to find a solution to on the self-financing front, the normalisation question definitely merits top priority.

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