Last week, on the same day that the Lok Sabha election results were announced, the results of the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test, or NEET, for admissions to undergraduate medical, dental and other courses, were also released.

Soon after, students across the country took to social media to complain about several irregularities with the exam, including that there had been delays in distributing the question paper in some centres, and errors in calculating students’ scores and ranks.

Several petitions were filed against the National Testing Agency, which conducts the exam. Among their demands were that the scores be cancelled and the exam be held afresh. On June 11, the Supreme Court issued notice to the agency, asking it to respond to one such petition, even as it allowed the process of counselling students for admissions to continue. A day later, the court struck down the agency’s contentious decision to award “grace marks” to 1,563 students who had faced delays during the conduct of the exams. The order stated that those students could appear for a re-test, or accept scores that did not include the grace marks.

The controversy has put the spotlight on the agency, which the Central government formed in 2017, with a mandate to conduct several entrance and recruitment exams that had earlier been held by different universities and bodies. These include the NEET, and the Joint Entrance Exam for admission to engineering courses, both earlier conducted by the Central Board Secondary Education; and the Common Management Admission Test, for admission to management programmes, formerly conducted by the All India Council for Technical Education. Since 2017, the National Testing Agency has held around 14 such exams every year.

Many questioned the wisdom of giving one agency such a responsibility. “There was no proof to show that these methods of conducting examinations were not working,” said Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary of the State Platform for Common School System-Tamil Nadu. “In all universities, colleges and boards of education, there are departments that are dedicated to setting papers, conducting exams and evaluation. When these systems have been working so well for so many years, why was there a need to change it?”

He added, “When there is only one body that is handling so many exams, there are bound to be mistakes. The government wants to render all the other school and higher education bodies meaningless by giving the authority of conducting exams to the NTA.”

On its website, the National Testing Agency is described “as a premier, specialist, autonomous and self-sustained testing organisation” that vows to assess competency based on “research based international standards, efficiency, transparency and error free delivery.”

But education activists say the agency’s record shows their concerns about its competency are justified. Among the incidents they cite as evidence of this is one from 2020, in which a JEE candidate from Assam allegedly sent a substitute to write his exam – the next month, police arrested the candidate, who had scored the highest marks in the state, and also arrested his father and employees of the testing facility. The same year, a NEET student in Madhya Pradesh died by suicide after she received a score of 6 in the exam. Her parents later checked her optical mark recognition sheet, or OMR sheet – these are filled in physically during the exams, and students can later access a copy from the agency’s website. When the student’s parents compared her OMR sheet with the answer key, they found that she should have, in fact, been awarded 590 marks.

The Common University Entrance Test, for admission to various Central, state, private and deemed universities, has also seen glitches. In May, reports appeared that at one centre in Kanpur, English question papers were distributed to the Hindi-medium students. The same problem occurred at a centre in Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan. The agency had to conduct retests for the affected students in both instances.

Scroll emailed the National Testing Agency, seeking responses to criticism of its functioning. This story will be updated if the agency responds.

Candidates appear for NEET at an examination centre in Chennai in 2023. Photo: AFP

Problems with NEET

This year, aspirants who wrote the NEET in some states also complained that they had been given question papers of the wrong medium language. In a video released by the ed-tech platform Physicswallah, one student from Sawai Madhpur in Rajasthan spoke about how students in her centre were initially forced to answer the paper even though it was in the wrong language.

After some time, she said, invigilators realised there had been an error and distributed the correct question papers. “But they refused to give us new OMR sheets,” she said. “They told us it was all the same, and that did not make any sense at all.”

Ujjawal Kumar is a student from Bhagalpur, Bihar, who attempted the NEET for the third time this year. He told Scroll that often, invigilators at these centres are unaware of the rules governing the exams, and have to be told about them by the students themselves. “They don’t distribute the papers correctly, they don’t know where we should paste our photos, where to sign, that water should be provided,” he said. “We are already under so much pressure and stress and we have to guide them on what to do.”

Many students take a gap year to prepare for the exam and risk losing even more time as a result of such problems. Given that it takes around a decade to become a doctor, the pressure on students to begin their training is immense, Kumar noted. “I simply cannot afford to wait another year and give the exam again,” he said.

This year, Kumar scored 646 on 720, and was assigned a rank of 32,623 – based on previous years’ scores, he had expected a rank of between 7,000 and 8,000. He argued that he had received a low rank because of the agency’s move to grant “grace marks” to many students. “Next year will they say that we have to get 700 in order to get a good rank? That is unreasonable,” he said. “I’ve already sacrificed so much and put up with so many taunts from my family and the society. Yet I still tried to be patient and work hard.”

Babu noted that one of the main justifications the government provided in support of the National Testing Agency was that the country could have a “uniform testing” system. “The argument in support of it was that bodies that were conducting these exams were evaluating liberally – giving grace marks or compensatory marks, moderation marks or normalisation marks,” Babu said. “But they are doing exactly that now, by giving compensatory marks.”

A lack of information

Activists contended that there was insufficient information about how the National Testing Agency’s papers were set and who set them. “The NTA is not an academic body,” Babu said. “There is no clarity on who is involved in setting the papers. Who are the resource people? So are they outsourcing it?”

The agency’s website notes that the agency has “to identify partner institutions with adequate infrastructure from the existing schools and higher education institutions which would facilitate conduct of online examinations without adversely impacting their academic routine”.

N Sai Balaji, an assistant professor at a private college and a former student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, argued that there was greater transparency when universities held their own exams. When a university department conducts an exam, he said, the head of the department knows who is responsible for setting the papers and who is in charge of handling its distribution. “If there is a leak, the head of the department will know exactly who to blame,” he said. “In the case of the National Testing Agency, will we know who is to blame?”

In 2022, while still a student, Balaji recounted, he filed a Right to Information request with the university after “several goof-ups” by the National Testing Agency. He sought information on the agreement between the university and the agency for the conduct of its entrance exam. The university responded that it did not have any information pertaining to his query.

“Almost every year there were glaring errors in their answer keys,” he said. “A few years ago, 6-7 answers were wrong in the Persian paper in the National Eligibility Test for the Junior Research Fellowship. After a student challenged the answers in court, he was granted the fellowship.”

Increasing centralisation

Babu argued that the formation of the National Testing Agency was part of a broader pattern of centralisation of entrance exams that has been unfolding over the last decade or so. Anil Sadgopal, an educationist and one of the founders of the All India Forum for Right to Education and a former member of the Central Advisory Board of Education, described the agency and such centralisation as “completely anti-people”.

Activists in Tamil Nadu have argued that Class 12 marks should suffice to determine whether the candidate is eligible for a course, and that forcing them to prepare separately for another exam through intense coaching classes renders those marks redundant. “A child is 17-18 when he graduates from school. The knowledge that he has garnered through his 12 years of schooling is tested in the board exams,” Babu said. “So that is what should be used to determine whether he is capable of pursuing a certain course.” Activists have also argued that entrance exams like NEET force students to take gap years after school purely to attend coaching classes, and that often students who attain high ranks are those on their second or third attempt.

New specialised exam systems are particularly inaccessible to those from marginalised communities, they noted, while relatively privileged aspirants can pay for private coaching for them. As Sadgopal noted, the increasing focus on such systems under the NTA was “only hindering the admissions of Dalit Bahujan students into these institutions”.