Cram schools and entrance exams

A scientist's career comes closest to that of an artist

A NEW trend just started at Hyderabad. A `cram school' which boasts that its students get the best results in the IIT joint entrance exams (JEE) and similar entrance tests for professional courses, has gone one step further. It has started a set of regular residential preparatory schools. These schools will admit 11-years olds, take them in class VI, and teach them right through class XII (just as any other school does), but continually `prepare' the kids during these seven years for the JEE. A dozen such schools are planned to be established across Andhra Pradesh. The school chairman says: "It is difficult to get into IITs even if a student studies for 18 hrs a day for two years. But if the same syllabi are followed from standard VI, it will be different." The annual fee in these `Olympic-type' prep schools will be Rs. 74,000 including hostel and mess charges. Classes start at 8 AM and end at 7 PM.Why many parents will clamour to get their children into these `cram soon after pram' schools, spending several lakhs of rupees, needs no great explanation. Middle class India has come to believe that if the child goes to `professional schools' like the IITs, Medical and Management schools, the future is rosy.

A no-brainer

As a Medical College Dean has said: " All professional education is taken and given by the middle class." Thus, to predict that more such cram schools will start and flourish, for medical and management entrance examination as well, is also a no-brainer.What of the youngster? Spare a thought for the youngster. Even as it stands, the Indian city schoolchild has no time for himself/ herself. There is precious little time for things like sport, art, language and literature, even just hanging out with peers and taking it easy. TV and movies seem the only diversions (and what diversions!) A typical city schoolboy at class XI starts his cram school coaching at 4 AM, works there for 3 hrs, gets home and then goes to school, where he is until 5 PM; then the homework, leading to a 18 hour academic day. Why? Because, the feeling has gained ground that only engineering or medicine can lead to high income and quality life, science can only be a second choice and BA is for losers an impression that needs to be countered and eradicated. It is against this backdrop that people have begun asking: what do the JEE and other exams achieve? Are they necessary? Granted, the institutions wish to have a means of filtering and choosing 5,000 from over 2,00,000, and a common entrance exam is the time-tested method. But over the years, the system has been derailed and become a cash-cow for cram schools. The JEE itself had, until recently, not changed in its pattern; the cram schools have become experts in recognising the pattern and training their students in this `pattern recognition' and answer the exam at speed. What do these exams evaluate?There has also been the feeling that city school children (middle class again) have an advantage over rural ones. It would be valuable to get a sociologist to analyse the validity of this claim; here is an excellent doctoral thesis subject in sociology. But the telling questions being asked are: "Is a student who gets the 450th rank more intelligent than one who ranks 500th? Is this a 100-metres sprint where such distinctions matter? Do these exams impose a sense of inferiority among the non-chosen (and their families)? Do they do more harm than good? Are there data that prove either way"?Alternatives: in an alternative model, BITS Pilani has not opted for an entrance exam but chose its students based on how well they did in their high school examination.

Normalisation protocol

They also adopted a normalisation protocol, while comparing the marks obtained at CBSE, ISC and the various State Boards. (More recently, they have added an on-line exam that these students take in addition). Over the years, the BITS system has worked just as well as the IIT system; their alumni have done just as well.So, an `unholy' cry is being raised, namely, scrap the JEE and similar entrance exams! What if we go by the high school marks and, at best, add an on-line aptitude test, which the student can take as often as he wants? Will the standards of IIT or medical schools fall? I am not convinced they will. (On an aside, Tamil Nadu has done away with their common entrance tests and, from what Professor M. Anandakrishnan a former IIT don and a current IIT chairman tells me, no harm has been done.) Sure, if the entrance exams are abolished, the cram school lobby will protest, bring political pressure, the ministry might `advise' otherwise. But, such a step would liberate the young minds and bodies from the dreary sands of this deadening tradition, and free them from zombiedom into that heaven of freedom of mind. In the same vein, let us ask another question. Are IT, medicine and management the only routes for a successful career? Sure, they pay well but, as the holy book says: `man does not live by bread alone'. Do they pose challenges, allow for creativity, lead to a sense of fulfillment? Except for those at the top, and who make decisions, these jobs can be routine, a grind. On the other hand, look at a career in scientific research. Even a researcher at the start of his career chooses to work on his own ideas, mould them in many ways, and find solutions. And the paycheck is not all that little either. In many ways, this career comes closest to that of an artist or a musician. Creativity is built in. You engage as an equal with other researchers across the world.

Feeling young

You get to go around the world, talking about your work and getting to know others much of the time for free or for a little money! You get to mentor youngsters, teach and be challenged, and thus feel young all the time. Even the IT-wallas and doctors depend for advances in their fields on scientific research. May I lead you to the book "100 Reasons to be a Scientist", downloaded free at krs/100reasons.pdf, where many reputed scientists talk about why they took to science and how it has enriched and fulfilled them.


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