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Could India's College Exam Gauntlet Be on Its Way Out?

At this moment, I wouldn't trade places with my cousin's 18-year-old son for anything. Sure, it be great to back up a decade or so in time and do...

At this moment, I wouldn't trade places with my cousin's 18-year-old son for anything. Sure, it be great to back up a decade or so in time and do a few things differently, especially college. But, as reported this week in The New York Times, the life of a 17- or 18-year-old college-bound kid in India is largely dominated by one activity: taking exams.

After the reading the article, I invited Anirudh to chat over Skype. He'd just finished the last of his board exams, which he said had gone better than expected. This one was in chemistry, but he'd also taken exams in French, English, math, and physics. In this way, it doesn't seem entirely different from a Regents exam or an Advanced Placement test that we regularly administer in this country.

But, he wasn't done yet. Between now and mid-May, the poor guy has to sit for six entrance exams to try to get an open seat in ultra-competitive institutions, such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), the National Institutes of Technology, and the Birla Institute of Technology & Science. (He spat out a deluge of abbreviations, like IITJEE, AIEEE, BITSAT, and KCET; for all I knew the kid could have been quoting from a government document.) According to the Times, IIT's acceptance rate is less than 3 percent. And Anirudh has been preparing for that exam since I last saw him in person-two years ago.

I noted that after May, he'd get a much-needed break until college starts in the fall. But, the toll of this exam-filled gauntlet has already cast a pall on the summer of 2010. Anirudh summed up his plight succinctly: "my next real holidays r the next summa." (Presumably, he uses proper English when taking tests.)

I've never felt so lucky to have taken the SATs in my life.

And, if Kapil Sibal, India's human resource development minister, has his way, a one-size-fits-all, SAT-type exam could replace this litany of entrance exams for India's precocious, middle class youth. Last month, Sibal outlined a pathway to get common standards for the teaching of science and math into schools by next year-and a single college entrance exam in place by 2013. But, getting down to one test isn't going to be easy-and in the case of some schools, such as IIT, the common exam probably won't fly.

According to Calcutta's paper The Telegraph:
\n[T]he proposal to introduce a common, national-level testing service may face strong opposition from institutions if it is made mandatory. The proposal - a general aptitude test and a subject-specific test - is aimed at saving students the hassle of appearing for multiple-entrance tests conducted by different undergraduate schools.

Sibal today said he was confident that all higher education institutions would accept the common test as their entrance procedure, but ministry sources confirmed that the test would "have to be left optional" for institutions.\n

As we touched on in early-February, Mumbai suffered a rash of adolescents committing suicide, largely due to academic pressure surrounding their board exams. If the common curriculum and the SAT-type test can help avoid incidents like those, as well as other mental health issues that arise from periods of extreme stress, the Indian government should strongly consider it-at the very least, as a public health initiative.

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