An interview with Prometric, which is all set to conduct computer-based CAT in partnership with the IIMs.

The Common Admission Test-2009 is indeed a significant departure from previous years. Besides its new digital computer-based avatar, this high-profile examination — which is used as a yardstick for admission to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Management — has brought in some unexpected news in terms of applicant numbers. Last week, the final registration figures that were released revealed a startling trend. While most postgraduate courses (as reported over the past two years since the economic recession set in) saw a significant increase in numbers, the demand for the IIMs which grows by about 20 to 25 per cent every year has stagnated. About 2.4 lakh candidates registered, compared to 2.76 lakh in 2008 (although only 2.4 lakh candidates appeared for it).

Experts who are surprised by this trend have attributed this to several factors. On the more speculative side, the fear of stepping out of jobs during recession has many a working candidate shy away from the IIMs, and perhaps the management profile has lost a bit of its sheen. But given the longstanding reputation of the IIMs, this is unlikely. Other experts have linked this to the fear of taking an online test, or anxiety on the part of students who feel that this is going to be a complicated affair.

Communication notes

To put some of these fears to rest, The Hindu EducationPlus spoke to Prometric, the company which has partnered with the IIMs to provide the logistics, handle the infrastructure and in short, run the test. Ramesh Nava, Vice-President and General Manager (Asia-Pacific), says that though they have not received direct queries, they will be (in the month leading up to the exam) releasing communication notes that highlight potential issues that could arise and how to cope with them. The company will also release a short video that will illustrate all of the test-day activities (much like the one that was released before the registration process).

Prometric, which has been in the field of testing for 18 years, has delivered some high-profile programmes such as Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and TOEFL. Mr. Nava says that the entire process has been tried and tested. More than 100 testing experts, many of them in India, have been working in preparation for the November launch of the computer-based CAT.

A major apprehension among applicants has been about maintaining the fairness of this test. One may ask, for instance, how can a test which gives result based on percentiles (which relies on relative performance) compute results for a test held over 10 days, with presumably different sets of questions. Mr. Nava says that a significant amount of research went into an evaluation of previous CAT administrations as well as the delivery and scoring system. Further, to reduce possible candidate anxiety and ease the overall transition to computer-based testing, a conscious effort was made to maintain as much consistency with the original CAT as possible. “We have ensured (using a scientific approach to analyse and review exam questions and construction) that all test-takers are provided with an equal opportunity and a comparable testing experience.”

For example, Mr. Nava says that in the paper format, candidates might mark out relevant sections of passages on which they are being questioned. In the computer-based version, there will be text highlighting facilities within passages which will offer them the same ability.

For those who are used to the process of elimination, there will also be a feature in the computer-based format to strike out incorrect options. In addition, candidates will be able to move forward and back during the exam to mark, review and change responses. The review screen provides a quick overview of which questions a candidate has completed, not attempted or marked for review, making it easy for him/her to move to a specific question or review only all the incomplete/marked ones without having to flip through pages of paper. The on-screen timer will also help facilitate time management by displaying how much time is left to attempt the test. To get a feel of the computer-based environment, candidates may view the CAT Demo which is available on www.catiim.in. Prior to the start of the test, there will be a 15-minute tutorial to take candidates through the full functionality and instructions for the test.

Decades of research have shown that whether a candidate takes an exam on paper or on computer, there is no significant difference in the score. So, students should keep this fact in mind as they prepare for the CAT, Mr. Nava says.

Test centres

The CAT 2009 will be conducted through a 10-day testing window in 32 cities in which more than 100 secure computer-based testing facilities are being specially prepared. Dispelling fears of possible goof-ups at the test centres, Mr. Nava says that Prometric is into the concept of test centre readiness, which entails the design, activation and validation of each new testing location. For CAT 2009, every effort is being made to ensure that the infrastructure meets the required standards. “Every potential site was evaluated to ensure that it meets our standards for candidate access and convenience, hardware and software, generators and uninterruptible power supply (UPS), connectivity and security.”

Security

But anything digital, though infinitely more easy to process, runs the risk of being hacked or even tampered with, candidates fear. Mr. Nava says that the integrity of the testing process and the value of the CAT are dependent on the secure distribution, storage and delivery of exam content. Having conducted several online and computer-based exams in the past, Prometric assures students that all the necessary safeguards are being implemented. “We would encourage students to avail themselves of the materials found on the IIM CAT website and the upcoming YouTube video. Familiarising themselves with what they should expect when they arrive at their designated testing location should ease any pre-test anxiety and avoid any surprises on test day.”

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