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CAT 2009: The IIMs' uncertainty principle

By ARKS Srinivas, Director, TIME Mumbai
Last updated on: March 10, 2010 15:24 IST
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The Common Admission Test or CAT as the exam is popularly known is the ticket to the dreams of thousands of students to gain admission to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Management.

This exam's popularity can be gauged from the fact that the number of applicants has been on the rise over the years and the hype surrounding the exam has only intensified.

It is one of the most sacrosanct exams to be held because the institutes conducting the exam -- the IIMs -- are government controlled and financed autonomous institutes with the most prestigious name in the industry. Some of the best companies throng its campuses during placement season and offer astronomic compensation packages.

However, CAT 2009 was in the news for all the wrong reasons. The institutes decided to take the test online to apparently cut down on the logistical problems associated with the whopping number of applications and to be at par with international exams like GMAT and GRE. But what followed was far from what was expected.

The IIMs decided to entrust the responsibility of carrying out the computer-based exam to Prometric, known for its successful conduct of the GMAT and GRE exams. And this is the story since then...

Admission process
The process was replete with glitches right from the very start. The application process faced impediments unexpected for an exam of such scale.

  • If the candidate's HSC or SSC score had not been captured, the system didn't give an error, it just proceeded to complete the process.
  • If one discovered the problem later, it wouldn't allow the candidate to modify the details but instead required the candidate to buy another voucher for Rs 1,400 and apply again.
  • There was no review page and few error conditions, so if the candidate missed certain details, his form would be submitted anyway.

To be fair to Prometric, they did rectify the problem but at a later stage, causing students who had submitted the form earlier to panic.

Since Day 1, candidates faced a variety of problems. Technical glitches and server crashes sent students crying foul.

  • There were no representatives from either Prometric or IIMs in the labs to address problems. The labs were manned by personnel from NIIT.
  • The problems that affected the students were numerous. For some the test didn't start at all.
  • Tests were rescheduled and there was no intimation or delayed initimation, causing widespread confusion.
  • In some centres, when the test did start, questions were missing, the options couldn't be seen, the server rebooted or the machine rebooted.
  • In the midst of this confusion, the problem was compounded when some students copied from each other.

While a re-test was conducted for aggrieved students, there were many who still felt the system was unfair.

With the initial and continued issues the CAT faced, the results were the main topic of debate. Would the results be fair -- that was the one question on top of everyone's mind. Given the background, the results were a contentious issue. However, this was the only time that the IIMs met expectations...unfortunately.

Students who had secured 99+ in the last few years but did not make the final cut landed up with an inexplicable score of around 90 percentile. Students who had never dreamt of doing great found themselves with 98 percentiles. It appeared almost like a random and arbitrary distribution of scores. And by not revealing the details of the scoring, the final figures are even more cause for skepticism.

Let us look at the issues involved.

  • Since the servers were attacked during the examination, is there any guarantee that the answers had been captured properly?
  • With all the technical glitches playing havoc with the mental stability of students already under pressure, is the exam really fair?
  • There is no way to ascertain that except for the students who took the re-test, no one else has been affected. If the virus attacks were random in nature, then there might be many other students whose answers may not have been captured properly and hence their score is not a true reflection of what they have done in the exam.
  • For the past few years, there have been at least two questions wrong in that year's CAT paper. Since the question papers haven't been let out, we cannot know if there were any errors. Going by their record, there were bound to be some. Who takes responsibility for that?
  • With the question paper under a scanner, the key is, again, doubtful. Is there any way to verify the key? It is possible that the key might have had errors like there have been in the last few years. There is NO transparency in the entire process.
  • Since the set of 60 questions wasn't categorised into sections, how have "sectional percentiles" been determined? How can it be verified if a question was a quant-based question or was a logic question? There was no instruction for a student to display "competence in all sections", simply because there weren't any. If that is the case, how can sectional cut-offs be taken as an entry barrier?
  • Normalisation of scores has been the highlight of Prometric's response. For an exam to be transparent, the methodology of calculating the score should be made available to all, which hasn't been done. Also, how are the scores normalised?
  • The total score for any section is 150. How was this figure reached? If all the questions were of equal marks, then this comes to a 7.5 marks per question, which is doubtful. If not, then this means questions were differently marked which wasn't communicated to the test-takers.
  • Some questions, despite protests from the IIMs, appear to have been lifted from previous years' CAT papers and without any change in even the options. For any student uninformed about the same, this was a major disadvantage.
  • Students who are enraged by the attitude of the IIMs have written mails to IIM but have been greeted with a reply from Prometric instead, citing words liek 'Normalisation' of scores and 'Psychometric' testing.
  • RTI petitions, which have been filed, have not been accepted on the pretext that Prometric is a private body and not a government concern and hence doesn't come under its purview. But students didn't apply to Prometric. They applied to government-controlled IIMs and what the IIMs and Prometric mess up between themselves should not be made a candidate's concern.

Taking all these issues into consideration it is hard to see the 2010 admission process as 'fair'. The IIMs are reputed to incubate the best minds in the country, however with the sanctity of the test and its results questionable, the quality of this year's intake unfortunately also suffers the same fate.

The views expressed are purely personal and are not of the organisation the writer represents.

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ARKS Srinivas, Director, TIME Mumbai
Related News: Prometric, GMAT, CAT, GRE, NIIT