Diluting the role of the IIT JEE

The JEE used to serve India well

Many years ago, high school education in India worked in a twin track system: There were those who studied for the IIT JEE and there was everyone else who didn’t. The former studied good books (e.g. Resnick/Halliday (which is a college level book elsewhere in the world), solved physics problems from Irodov, etc.

In contrast, studying for the 12th standard (”board examination”) tended to emphasise rote memorisation, focusing on trivial questions where you had to plug numbers into a formula, emphasised accuracy of calculation and good handwriting. I vividly remember a textbook for 11th class physics used in Maharashtra, which said that Newton’s second law did not apply for living things and powered vehicles. The thoughtful author must have wondered how a stationary cat started walking without the action of an external unbalanced force, and resolved the problem by limiting the footprint of Newton’s second law. The less time that kids spend in studying for board examinations, the better.

I used to be optimistic that the footprint of the enhanced curriculum, and complexity of examination questions, lay far beyond the tiny number of people who entered IIT. Even if only 2,000 kids entered IIT, if 40,000 of them studied for the JEE, it gave them world class capabilities at high school. In each cohort, we got 40,000 people who were very good by world standards. In a country with pervasively low capabilities, it was very useful having this slice of high inequality of knowledge, for it gave a group of people who were able to learn modern technology, connect to globalisation, and create firms which generate a lot of high-paying jobs. It is fashionable to complain about inequality of knowledge, but given that you are in a LDC with a very low mean, would you really rather have very low variance??

With this old configuration, we also got a nice tool for inter-generational class mobility. The middle class got their kids into IIT, and almost all these graduated into upper class by the time they were 30.

More generally, a lot of countries have found that high stakes examinations are a good thing. High stakes examinations push the work ethic, grow the ability of young people to work hard in a sustained manner with high concentration, ensure foundations of mathematics and science, and encourage a meritocracy. They create a self-selected elite of young people who are not immersed in and defined by mass culture. All these are good things.

Problems of the JEE

I used to think like this for a long time. I have reluctantly been persuaded, over recent years, that the JEE isn’t working so well.

Too many young people are studying for the examination and not the subject. The obsessive focus upon coaching classes is producing a one-dimensional personality which isn’t so well suited to entering college. In the 1980s, the most interesting students in IIT were thinking people who read books, knew a lot about the world, and could also solve monkeys on pulleys. With brutal competition, and the coaching classes phenomenon, too often, all that’s left today is the monkeys on pulleys. There is a certain kind of parent who is willing to have a child go live in Kota at age 15. This screened out many families from the race.

Economists know about this phenomenon in agency theory. High-powered incentives are a problem because the agent only focuses on the incentive and tends to cut corners (or worse) on everything that’s not mentioned in the incentive contract. Andrade and Castro bring this generic idea in agency theory into the question of examinations, and find similar effects.

In the 1980s, there was substantial diversity of background, experiences and class amongst the students. This was a good thing, since students would then pick up the culture of people unlike them. In recent years, it appears that there is much greater homogeneity of background, experiences and class. The extent to which the person gets transformed in the four years has, as a consequence, gone down. When very few children of the elite go to IIT, this reduces access to the knowledge and networks of the elite for everyone who goes to IIT. This has reduced the ability of IIT to generate inter-generational class mobility.

Jishnu Das and Tristan Zajonc have found a nice bump in the upper tail of the distribution of skills in India. The pessimist sees this as being about class or caste: certain families bring up kids who know more. The optimist in me used to think this was the bunch studying for the IIT entrance. Also see Geniuses and economic development on the importance of the upper tail of the skills distribution.

It is increasingly difficult to be optimistic about how this is going. Narendra Karmarkar graduated from IITB in 1978, and went on to do truly important work in 1984. My optimism about the IITs peaked in 1984. This should have scaled up manifold in the following years. It has not. In the 1980s, I used to think that by 2010, we’d have atleast one Nobel laureate from the IITs. That has not happened. This tells us that the IITs are not delivering on their early promise; things haven’t worked out well in the following years. I think the JEE is a part of the problem.

One of the most disappointing features of the recent OECD PISA evidence was the absence of this bump in the upper tail. This new evidence shows a scary world of low inequality of skill, of a country with a terrible mean and no upper tail of an elite that can power the country out of mass poverty. I would conjecture two potential explanations for what has been found. One, it could be the case that this testing was done at age 15, at which time not much of the IIT JEE studying has as yet taken place. Alternatively, it could be the case that studying for the IIT JEE is not producing good knowledge.

But the solution being offered doesn’t seem to be the right one

There are two views on how these problems can be solved. The first alternative is to shift away from admissions based on a high stakes examination. Universities in the US screen applicants on many parameters, so this is generally thought to be better. But when we look back in history, universities in the US used to focus primarily on academic performance only, until a glut of Jews showed up in Harvard. The shift to asking for `well rounded personalities’ was a tool by the dominant anti-semetic elite to screen out Jewish kids who did not play football. So we should be cautious in respecting the undergraduate admissions process in the US. It is also important to remember that the quality of kids starting college in the US is quite weak by world standards. There are other countries (e.g. Japan) where large scale high-stakes examinations are used for university admissions, with much success.

I feel that the core problem that we have in India is just too few seats, which has generated a ridiculous extent of competition and distorted behaviour on the part of the kids. The solution lies in solving the policy problems in higher education, so that a large number of kids are taken into world class institutions every year. E.g. adding undergraduate programs at I I Sc, with recruitment through the JEE, was a move in the right direction. We need to grow the size of the entrant class in universities in India, that figure in the Times Higher Education Supplement ranking, by 10-fold. At present, we have only one university in that list – IIT Bombay.

Kapil Sibal is offering neither of the two solutions above: we are not being offered a modified admissions process based on looking at a fuller picture of the child, and we are not being offered a Japanese scale world of high stakes examinations with a lot of seats in world class universities. What we’re being offered is a scaling down of the role of the IIT JEE. A greater role for the 12th standard examination is just a recipe to emphasise rote memorisation, focusing on trivial questions where you had to plug numbers into a formula, emphasising accuracy of calculation and good handwriting. This seems wrong to me.

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