The pros and cons of the CSAT controversy

The apprehensions among sections of aspirants should be allayed. With the relevance of the civil services to the present order itself being questioned, faith and hope in the system need to be sustained

September 14, 2014 12:41 am | Updated 12:44 am IST

The Civil Services preliminary examination 2014 has concluded. The new scheme involving the Aptitude Test CSAT, has been alternately criticised fiercely and defended equally.

From 2011, in the preliminary examination the optional subject was dispensed with and General Studies Paper I and II were introduced. Paper II, which is CSAT, comprises, inter alia , mental ability, English comprehension, logical reasoning and analytical ability, basic numeracy, data interpretation, and so on. Candidates with rural and humanities backgrounds saw this pattern as a blow to their hopes and they feared being eliminated in the preliminary stage itself. Critics also saw a bias in favour of students with a technical background. Having taken a tendentious tone, the debate ended up getting snagged on rhetoric and losing focus.

The pattern of the examination harks back to Lord Macaulay’s time. Over time, several committees have sought to fine-tune and refine it. Changes were effected from time to time in tune with what the policymakers of the time wanted.

The report of the Committee on Selection Process and Recruitment Methods, 1976, better known as the Kothari Committee report, recommended a sequential three-tier system — an objective-type preliminary examination, a descriptive type main examination and a personality test. It dovetailed the process by combining the first two stages and seeking homogeneity by carrying forward an optional subject from the preliminary to the main examination stage.

The Satish Chandra Committee Report of 1989 did not suggest any major changes, except the introduction of an essay paper and more marks for the personality test. Pointing to the inadequacy of the existing pattern in testing a candidate’s traits and comprehension skills, it wanted the essay paper to test linguistic skills, comprehension and critical analysis, integrated thinking, assimilation of ideas and clarity of expression. The essay, introduced from 1993, constituted a paradigm shift. For the first time, candidates were made to articulate their views on big-picture issues.

Some critics argue that the present CSAT is but a glorified bank recruitment examination. While the Kothari Committee espoused synergy between the preliminary and main examinations with the optional subjects being chosen in tandem for the first two stages, CSAT involves a disconnect between the first two stages of the examination.

Firstly, there appears to be a bias in favour of mathematics and English. Secondly, being an objective type paper, it does not test the candidates’ expertise in all the areas, required for the process of elimination. Thirdly, any candidate with expertise in objective type examination may succeed easily. Fourthly, weightage is skewed in favour of urban candidates. Lastly, it does not test the suitability of a candidate for the gruelling descriptive type optional paper for the main examination.

As every serious aspirant starts preparing for the main examination from the start, extra emphasis laid on mental ability and English comprehension at the preliminary stage would create a stumbling block for ideas, as the stages appear conceptually disconnected.

The government has addressed the issue by announcing that CSAT marks would not be counted in the 2014 examination. A consensual approach will involve restoring the optional paper to its rightful place in the preliminary stage as per the Kothari recommendations. The continuity between the two stages would also be restored.

However, the changes conceived for the main examination have far-reaching implications. The existing pattern of four papers from two optional subjects has been dispensed with and one optional subject of two papers remains. Having four optional papers will tilt the balance in favour of candidates who are good at summarising and reproducing material; it may not test intellectual competence as skills for critical analysis are not required.

The introduction of four general studies papers is a right step. The broad canvas of subjects in the four papers and their equal dispersion reflect the aim of judging a candidate’s ability to critically analyse and comprehend a gamut of issues of national and international significance. The introduction of general studies paper IV with emphasis on ethics and integrity to judge a candidate’s suitability for the services is also a welcome move, especially at a time when the civil services are being criticised for policy paralysis and indecision.

In a nutshell, the scheme envisaged for the main examination disengages the concept of abstract reasoning and summarising and seeks to elicit views on issues and suggest positive solutions to given situations. As equal weightage is given for all the papers, there should not be any grievance. Further, candidates can opt for the regional languages.

It is natural to introspect over any system, and the civil services examination is no exception. But the apprehensions among sections of aspirants should be allayed. With the relevance of the civil service to the present order itself being questioned, faith and hope in the system need to be sustained.

The aspirations of millions of underprivileged and the needy have to be addressed by means of an efficient delivery mechanism that is pragmatic, imaginative, purposive and acceptable to all. If this is not done, the exercise runs the risk of being rendered nugatory.

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