INDIA: Single entry test proposed

With millions of school leavers sitting multiple examinations in their final year of school, India's education ministry is proposing a single national entrance test for universities and professional institutions.

The aim is to reduce student stress and also to introduce greater flexibility in the education system that currently makes it difficult for students to switch between science, humanities and commerce once they have made a choice in high school.

Each university in India holds its own entrance tests for various subjects. Private universities and institutions also set their own tests. Almost every state has a Common Entrance Test for entry into engineering and medical institutions.

A student applying to colleges in different states or choosing between state and private institutions is forced to take a large number of tests.

The ministry's proposal to establish a national testing service (NTS), which universities will have to use in place of their own entrance examination, is seen as a significant reform of the system of entry to higher education in the country.

"Students can take the subject tests offered by the NTS and apply to any university they want. The university may accept the NTS test or consider the Class 12 (school leaving) result of the student. It may insist on an interview. But it will not be allowed to hold another individual test," said a senior ministry official.

Even the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), who take students through the hugely competitive Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), will have to use the national test, along with private institutions, although institutions would be free to decide the weighting they wish to give the NTS score compared to Class 12 results, the official said.

The national test will also have different levels of difficulty so that it is appropriate for the most prestigious institutions as well as applications for sub-degree qualifications.

"We are thinking of various levels of difficulty. The IITs may choose to accept the tests with the highest level of difficulty. But a student applying for a diploma course can opt for a lower level of difficulty. The idea is to give the choice and flexibility to students," the official said.

The NTC will also enable students to move between disciplines. A school-leaver who had opted for the commerce stream at school but wanting to study medicine can take the NTC science exams to qualify for university entry in the sciences.

Conversely, a science student who wants to apply for economics or history can sit the subject exams along with an English subject test.

At present, students choose humanities or science or commerce in the penultimate year of school. The streams and subjects cannot be mixed and students are stuck with their choices for life.

Although science students can apply for humanities or commerce, some of the country's top universities including Delhi University usually do not consider them for admission.

"The idea is to give students the flexibility to choose their subjects in university. In class 12 a student is too young to find out his interests or aptitude for a particular subject," said a senior official of the ministry.

"Most developed countries test students on their subject strengths. This should work if it is implemented properly," said Thiru K. Ganesan, principal secretary (higher education) in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

According to Ganesan, the system would work if every state government agreed to adopt it and private institutions were brought on board.

"If some accept the new system and others don't then it will not help students. The government has to ensure that all stakeholders are on board," said Ganesan.

Tamil Nadu has already implemented a credit-based system across its colleges where students have some choice of courses.

The national test is likely to come into effect from 2013 and is expected to reduce exam stress.

"Entrance tests have taken the joy out of studying. Students don't want to learn. They just want to qualify tests. Just having one exam after school will reduce the burden on students and give them ample time," said PC Jain, principal of Sri Ram College of Commerce in New Delhi.