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Now, CAT goes digital

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A CLICK AWAY: A paper-free CAT that is also adaptive will mark a major change
A CLICK AWAY: A paper-free CAT that is also adaptive will mark a major change

DEEPA KURUP

MBA aspirants are worried that changes in format will affect performance.

The 33-year-old Common Admission Test, used as the yardstick to screen candidates for admissions to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Management, is all set to go digital. Shedding the paper-and-pencil format for a simple Computer-Based Test (CBT), the IIMs recently announced that the single-day affair will soon be strung out over a 10-day period “sometime at the end of the year.”

Tradition has it that the exam is conducted on the third Sunday of November. However, the delay in schedule is the least of the MBA aspirant’s worries. With little certainty over the mode of the test, its pattern and marking system, CAT aspirants who have been preparing for nearly a year now, find their career on a somewhat sticky wicket.

Akshay Rajamohanan, a software professional who plans to take CAT-2009, says there is a gnawing sense of anxiety among aspirants. “Given that the economy is in recession, most graduates will appear for PG entrance. Now, this shift in pattern only increases speculation and adds to our anxiety.”

His friend Priyadarshini Maniyan, who took GMAT this year — an online exam for admissions to MBA colleges abroad — wonders how ranks will be decided for different question sets, that too conducted on 10 separate days. “Already, engineers and science graduates seem to have an edge over others in CAT. Is it not unfair in a country like ours to go digital, and that too at such short notice?” she asks.

However, the IIMs have been declaring their intention to “go online” for nearly two years now. Though the final announcement caught people unawares, considering the scale of the examination — over 2.76 lakh students took the exam in 23 centres in 2008 — this shift was expected.

Sample this. While about 95,000 candidates took CAT in 2003, the number rose to about 2,50,000 in 2008 indicating a rise of a whopping 163 per cent. An IIM-B official told The Hindu EducationPlus that with the number of CAT candidates increasing manifold, the administrative system was under considerable strain.

“CBT CAT will be a candidate-friendly test in terms of flexibility in the selection of test date, ease of registration process, better physical environment and test experience, biometric identification and video monitoring,” a statement from the institute said. The fineprint on the procedure is expected to be released along with the CAT bulletin in July.

Experts in leading CAT coaching centres confirm that anxiety-levels among students are high. While bigger coaching centres, especially those which already coach students for computer-based tests, will find the transition easy, smaller ones will find the infrastructure leap difficult to manage.

G. Gopinath, centre-head of IMS Learning Centre, Mysore, advises students to continue focussing on the content for now. “Four months from July is good time to brush up on computer skills, so there’s no need to panic,” he says.

The IIMs are attempting to design a format comparable to GRE and GMAT, as expressed in their press statement. This raises two fundamental questions: will the test be “adaptive” and how will ranks be decided? Firstly, students are worried that IIMs will opt for an adaptive format which means that questions will depend on an individual’s competence level — for instance, you cannot proceed to the next question without answering the previous one.

Though considered a more-evolved format, this would also imply that the IIMs will have to do away with their percentile (or comparative percentage) system of ranking, provide instant scores instead of ranks and also ensure that the process remains fair to all students. This is a rather complex procedure of testing and experts say that it is unlikely that it will be used. Mr. Gopinath says: “A CBT isn’t cause for panic, but making it adaptive will be a complete departure from the present format and is likely to create panic.”India is not a complete novice to CBTs, points out Jaideep Singh Chowdhary of the Triumphant Institute of Management Education. “Exams like the BITSAT (for admissions to the Birla Insitute of Technology) have been online for some time now. The challenge will lie in the numbers,” he says.

Mr. Chowdhary reminds candidates that content and skill is a lot more important. “Considering the exam is taken by graduates, most of them are computer literate and can handle a mouse.” The only change may be that students will not be allowed to view the paper as a whole, and may lose flexibility in attempting.

“Generally, students learn to strategise, skip some questions and pick the simple ones. They may lose that privilege,” he says, adding that change is part of every CAT and should not be viewed negatively.


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