April 30, 2007

Of exams

So this is what happens when I cut back, way back, on reading blogs regularly: I miss out on a compelling recent back and forth. Brought to my notice by someone who, as I was departing after lunch, said: Check out the debate on women and the IITs on Abi's blog.

So I did. Not in full measure, though it also took me to another blog that I read far too infrequently, Vivek's.

Some thoughts (some anecdotal, so sue me), generated by these two men, for both of whom I have a lot of respect.

  • Way back when (1976) I did the IIT-JEE. Thought I could get through without coaching, so I took none. I thought wrong. Or at least, I didn't get in. As the years have passed, I've come to believe more and more that I really failed because I didn't take the exam seriously. (I later failed another exam for the same reason). But a coaching class would have forced me to take it seriously.

  • Way back when (1981) I did the GRE. Thought I could get through without coaching, so I took none. I got excellent scores. I think it is possible to do well in GRE-like exams without coaching; sometimes I wonder if the GRE and the JEE measure different things. It's also true that I took the GRE more seriously than I did the JEE.

  • The engineering college I attended, BITS Pilani, admitted people based on school-leaving marks. It had a 1:20 sex ratio among students when I was there. (In case you need to ask, that's f:m). I believe part of that ratio was explained by the limited hostel space for girls.

  • Over the years, BITS admitted an ever-increasing number of girls, still on school-leaving marks. When I visited the campus in early 2004, the sex ratio was more like 2:3. (Still f:m). I believe part of that increase is explained by hugely expanded hostel space for girls.

  • In 2004, BITS introduced their new online admissions test, BITSAT. The immediate fallout was a drastic drop in the number of girls admitted. I believe the ratio among 2004 entrants was something like 1:10, uncomfortably like in my time.

  • This drop is of serious concern to BITS authorities, who I believe are examining (among other things) if the test itself has or encourages gender bias.

  • On a more recent visit to the campus, I discussed this drop with various women, including fellow students from my time and current students who had taken the test. Their general feeling was that various societal pressures make it difficult for women to take and do well in such a test: including the difficulty of going to coaching classes, the feeling that engineering is not for women, etc: i.e., many points that came out in this debate anyway.

  • I don't believe a test by itself can have a gender bias. I do believe there are inherent societal biases that can get reflected and emphasized by the whole testing process -- including coaching classes. Therefore I think the real battle is to tackle those biases. It is, like a lot of things, the harder and more long term battle.

  • I think there's nothing wrong with an educational institution testing candidates for admission, via an exam that's every bit as difficult as the institution wants to make it. After all such an institution ideally wants to attract the best possible students.

  • If that institution is a desirable one, there will be coaching classes set up to prepare you for the test. (As there are for the BITSAT). Simple supply and demand.

  • In an ideal world, I'd like to see no coaching classes. Such an ideal world would also, among other things, treat school and university teaching as a first-choice profession, and have a seat for you in whatever discipline you choose to pursue. We are not in that ideal world, and since that's so, we will have coaching classes.

  • It's a myth that students were "better" in the good old days. It's a myth some of us from those old days like to delude ourselves with; besides, I'm not convinced that the old days were as good as we like to pretend, anyway. Students of today are just as sharp as in my time.

  • But what's not a myth is that some professors at some of our institutions are concerned about the kind of students they get. I've heard from these profs that the students remain very bright, motivated and capable. But they are also focused entirely on their particular subjects, with nearly no interest in outside subjects. Not everyone need see this as a worry; but these profs do. I do.


    Finally, two points about the debate itself:

  • I don't know why so many feel it's necessary that such debates have "winners" and "losers". To me, both Abi and Vivek brought thought-provoking material to the table. Surely the goal should not be to pronounce that one of them "won", or got "bashed" (neither of which I can see, even if I thought it mattered which I don't), but instead to search for a corrective to whatever it is that puts far less girls than boys in our engineering institutions. That is, if we believe that this situation needs correction.

  • I don't believe it helps debate among sincere, responsible adults -- which both Vivek and Abi are -- when you say something like: "This is beyond silly." Abi, I know you regret that.
  • 7 comments:

    Anonymous said...

    Dilip,

    Wow. Terrific post. Pretty much along my thinking on that debate.

    1. I found the center of gravity of your post to be:
    "... I don't believe a test by itself can have a gender bias. I do believe there are inherent societal biases... \snip\ ... the real battle is to tackle those biases. It is, like a lot of things, the harder and more long term battle. ..."

    I am reading into it the idea that we *should* fight the long term battle and not go in for some quicky shortcuts.

    2. "... nothing wrong in an exam as difficult as the institution wants ..."

    If this is your stand on the concern expressed by Rahul and others that JEE aimed well above the normal XII syllabus thereby requiring coaching to be able to hope to crack it I have some quibbles but dont want to rehash that debate here.

    3. I dont think there was too much aggressive win /lose posturing in that debate, at least not by the end of it. Some commenters were reading Abi on a "shortcuts/ quota" track but it seemed to balance out.

    regards,
    Jai

    Anonymous said...

    The impression given by DCubed that hostels had to do with number of girls at BITS Pilani is wrong. In the 70s there was one girl hostel and in the 80s and 90s the girls hostel expansion started with increasing numbers of girl students. Year 2003 the number of girls were so high, BITS had to convert one of its boys hostel Malaviya Bhawan as a girls hostel. Its incorrect to say that more girls came becauese of more hostels. In fact more hostels came because of more girls. Jokes that BITS itself will change name from Birla Institute to Balika Institute were floating all over. Year 2004, to abide by the law of the land, BITS had to go for admission by entrance exam. Despite the fact that BITSAT was online exam and had flexibility of choosing date time etc, stll fewer girls chose to opt for taking the exam.In executing the merit based admissions BITS Pilani does not bother to look at if the candidate is male or female. In fact the scene now is that part of the girls hostel will be made as boys hostel!! Dcubed and others should inspire girls to take up higher education even if it is by entrance exam rather than discussing how many rooms are there in the girls hostel at BITS Pilani.

    Anoop Saha said...

    Great post, Dilip. Somehow, I too missed the whole debate.
    Its not only the women who lose out because of societal pressure. Other factors also pitch in. In IIT, I found very few students (in percentage terms) from rural background. The regional distribution of IIT graduates is also skewed. The format of the exam might not be the reason. But the IITs can do better to promote diversity. Diversity (regional, economical, societal, gender, etc) is good for everyone.

    Vivek Kumar said...

    Dilip,

    I agree with Jai about the whole win/lose thing. Someone standing on the outside tried to make a funny post around that theme, but apart from that it was just a regular discussion. In fact, if you recall previous "blog wars", there was virtually no name-calling etc in this one.

    There will always be some people who see others through ideological glasses rather than evaluating them on the basis of ideas, but nothing can be done about it.

    And I agree with you about the "real" battle to tackle the biases. The gains to be had, if any, from tweaking JEE are too little to justify such efforts.

    Anirudh said...

    In an ideal world, there will be no "disciplines", no schools, no colleges, no universities. I used to read Abi's posts on education because they were thoughtful and clearly written but I have stopped precisely because the debate on his blog is always within one frame of reference, never between two different frames.

    Abi said...

    As usual, a great post, Dilip. I agree with most of the things you have said. Except for this:

    I think there's nothing wrong with an educational institution testing candidates for admission, via an exam that's every bit as difficult as the institution wants to make it. After all such an institution ideally wants to attract the best possible students.

    What if its method of choosing the 'best possible students' also happens to have an [implicit] bias that excludes a certain group -- women, in the case of JEE and other entrance exams?

    Abi, I know you regret that.

    Oops, I missed seeing this the first time I read your post. Yes, you are right; that was a bad choice of words, and I apologized to Vivek for using "harsh words" in that post, when I responded to a very gracious e-mail from him on this episode.

    Anonymous said...

    I cant believe Abi is still harping the same 'bias' tune. Abi you should have asked your question as:
    What if an individual thinks that the said exam has bias that excludes a certain group?

    I think the answer would be : The individual needs to make a case and prove his point.

    From an outside observer's perspective, you have not been able to prove your point Abi. Your case seems too weak to me.