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Boning up for the entrance exam, India style

- October 7, 2008

standardized test.jpg

And now for something a little different: A post on a topic other than the U.S. election campaigns.

Kaplan, the Princeton Review, and other such enterprises make big bucks preparing would-be MDs, CEOs, lawyers, and others to score well on the standardized exams that will serve as their admission tickets to graduate study and eventually to lucrative careers. Indeed, the emphasis on standardized testing has so thoroughly permeated all levels of American education that it often seems that elementary, middle-school, and high school teachers have little time to do anything but teach the substance and testing skills that will stand them — and, of course, their school — in good stead when it’s time for students to apply to college and for schools to have their performance assessed.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Well, really, there probably is something wrong with that, but education policy is one of the many topics about which I claim no particular expertise. I’ve come neither to praise nor bury these exams.

So why do I bring this up? Well, the other day (September 30, to be exact) in the Wall Street Journal I read an interesting piece by Eric Bellman about the entrance exams for the Indian Institutes of Technology. Admission to one of these institutes is highly selective. Approximately 310,000 students took the exam last April, and only about 8,600 of them (2.7% or so) were offered admission.

Like their counterparts in the U.S., many students in India enroll in special courses to prepare themselves for the entrance exam. This is where it gets interesting.

According to Bellman’s story, the dusty town of Kota has emerged as “India’s cram school capital.” Here are some excerpts:

bq. More than 40,000 students show up in the arid state of Rajasthan every year, looking to attend one of the 100-plus coaching schools here. These intensive programs, which are separate from regular high school, prepare students for college-entrance exams. In Kota, most of the schools focus on the prestigious Indiand Institutes of Technology. …A whopping one-third of [the students admitted to the IITs] in the current academic year passed through Kota’s cramming regimen.

bq. Students study full-time for two years just for one entrance exam … Vinod Kuman Bansal, who is credited with starting the cram-school craze … developed an intensive study system that bombards students with test questions for nine hours a day for two years. They only teach what is on the IIT exams — mathematics, physics and chemistry.

bq. Now, Bansal Classes’ 17,000 students study six days a week. One Sunday a month, they have a six-hour test which is set up just like the IIT exam. After two years, students have taken the mock test more than 20 times.

bq. The Bansal campus is strangely quiet. Teachers say there are rarely disciplinary problems, except for the occasional student sneaking into a class to repeat it, and a bit of graffit. Even that is inspirational: The writing on one metal bench says, ‘Bansalites rock, IIT rocks, Lyf after IIT rox.’

Two years of organized study, nine hours per day, six days per week — all aimed at passing one test. If I’m doing the math right (always an issue when I’m the one doing the math), about 3,000 of the 40,000 students who spent two years in Kota subjecting themselves to this ultra-rigorous preparation (that would be something like 20% of them) were offered admission. That means that approximately 80% weren’t. Not great odds, but much better than the 8,600 of 310,000 success rate for all the students who took the test.