CAT aspirants are angry, frustrated and outraged as the IIM authorities are yet to respond to their demand for a re-test.

The Indian Institutes of Management aimed to make history this year by becoming the first large-scale Indian admission test to become computer-based. As things have turned out, many students who wrote CAT 2009 are wishing that they weren't the guinea pigs in this attempt to get into the history books.

About 15 per cent of students in the first week were unable to complete their examinations. The IIMs and Prometric, the American testing firm contracted to conduct the test for a fee of $40 million blamed a virus attack, but not everone was convinced. Thousands more submitted their tests, but complained about technical glitches and untrained personnel who messed up the experience for them. Almost 9,000 tests were rescheduled. When this paper went to print, CAT had been extended by an additional day to December 8, and there was discussion about whether another extension would be needed.

Students are angry that the months they have spent preparing for this prestigious examination have been wasted. “My computer hung twice in the middle,” said one of the “lucky” students who managed to complete the exam. “They say, ‘Please don't panic…the problem will get solved.' (But) the timer is running! A few seconds added will cost a few minutes, better scores, better chances of a good MBA…(CAT 2009) was a waste of time, waste of money and waste of energy. I demand a re-exam, a written one.”

Neeraj Singh, who was scheduled to write the exam on Saturday at Hyderabad was outraged that even on the eighth day of the test, neither the IIMs nor Prometric had been able to sort out the problem. “We were made to be seated from 9 am to 3 pm and in the end the test was called off. Pathetic will be a very sober word to use for Prometric and the IIMs,” he said.

Students also complained about the large number of repeat questions, even from last year's paper, making the exam much easier for students writing the paper in the last few days.

The government is taking the outrage among students seriously, and has asked the IIMs to produce a report explaining the causes of the problem, although there has been no response to the widespread demand for a re-test.

P. Vishwanath, the director of one of the leading coaching institutes, spearheaded the campaign for a re-test with an open letter to the IIMs. “We believe that the computerised CAT should be cancelled for this year – and a paper and pencil test be conducted in its place. This will do justice to all people who have suffered because of the problems faced by them with the computerised CAT. After a series of more thorough dry runs, computerised CAT can be reintroduced next year after solving various problems that are currently plaguing the computerised CAT,” he said.

While CAT aspirants are repeatedly told that “practice makes perfect”, the IIMs failed to follow that advice this year. Prometric Chief Operating Officer Charlie Kernan admitted that while they had conducted mock drills at individual centres but not on a large scale.

The 2.4 lakh candidates were scheduled to write the test on 17,000 computers in 361 temporary testing labs in 32 cities across the country. “There are always bound to be problems the first time such a huge exam takes place, especially if it is concerns technology. But we are working very hard to fix all the problems and accommodate all candidates,” said Samir Barua, director of IIM-A.

Shiva Kumar, director of research and development at the well-known training institute Career Launcher suggests that the IIMs make a management case study of the CAT debacle for the benefit of their students. “It makes a fantastic case on how strategy gets defeated if execution is flawed. It seems “Systems and Processes” is a part of only the Management Strategy classes. When the IIMs have outsourced the test logistics to Prometric, I believe some solid audit systems should have been in place,” he said. “I think this is the classic outsourcing problem. Maybe IIMs trusted Prometric, Prometric Trusted NIIT and NIIT trusted the ‘local labs'…I hope a host of other institutes that have lined up their Online tests have a lot to learn from this ‘CAT'astrophic experience.”

The debate is now about the future of computerised or even online testing in the country. CAT 2009 was eagerly watched as a test case, and how Prometric and the IIMs handle the aftermath of the fiasco will determine whether it is looked at as a valuable learning experience, or a setback for the next decade.