This year, Class 11 students in schools affiliated to state boards in Odisha and Punjab started following the syllabus of the Central Board of Secondary Education. By next year, CBSE syllabi developed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training will entirely replace those of the state boards for both Classes 11 and 12.

The move follows the Supreme Court’s decision last year to abolish all state examinations for undergraduate admissions in medicine and dentistry, and to give the Central Board of Secondary Education the charge of conducting a single entrance test – the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test.

In fact, from 2018, state exams for engineering too will be replaced by a common national-level test. Officials from the Ministry of Human Resource Development said this would be conducted by the soon-to-be-established National Testing Service.

The centralisation of major entrance examinations, written by lakhs of students every year, is leading to a scramble in the states to either replace their syllabi wholesale or find ways to close the gap with the CBSE. The process of standardisation that began with the introduction of the National Curriculum Framework 2005 – which provides a structure for syllabi, textbooks and teaching at all levels of school education – is being hastened.

But the shift to centralised examinations has not been smooth, with several states still opposed to it. Three years ago, the West Bengal board revised its syllabus to “make it compatible with the CBSE”, said Mahua Das, president of the West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education. Despite that, it was felt that students who followed the state board syllabus were at a disadvantage when they wrote CBSE-based national-level competitive exams. After the Supreme Court ruling last year, the Council developed and printed a two-volume biology textbook exclusively with the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test in mind. Das said she hoped this, and other similar efforts, would help students fare better in the tests.

Oppose or adjust?

Both Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are against a national entrance examination for engineering, although the All India Council for Technical Education on Tuesday overruled their objections to pass a resolution to conduct the test from 2018.

In Tamil Nadu, admissions are based on board exam results. West Bengal conducts its own public examination. In May last year, over 1.3 lakh candidates, including some based in Assam and Tripura, wrote the West Bengal exam for engineering and pharmacy, said a report in the Indian Express report.

“We are trying hard to convey to the Centre that imposing a common exam without knowing the standard and level of the regional board is an injustice,” said Mahua Das of the West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education.

At the same time, the council is making an effort to improve the chances of candidates from West Bengal at the national-level tests, without disturbing the newly-revised syllabus or pushing them toward private coaching. “This year, we have reproduced the entire NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training] syllabus for the sciences,” said Das. “We have followed their [presentation of concepts], of solutions [to problems] and gone chapter by chapter. But the price of each book is much lower and they are selling as fast as we can print them. We do not want the children to go for [private] coaching.” These books are in addition to those that cover the state board syllabus.

Officials from Tamil Nadu’s school education department refused to comment, saying the “the issue is too controversial”. But, a report in The Telegraph said the state government, while stating its opposition to the common engineering test, argued that central exams, with their focus on the CBSE syllabus, leave children in state board-affiliated schools at a disadvantage. According to the same report, the state was advised to “immediately revise its school syllabus”.

But there is acceptance of centralised exams in other states. For instance, Punjab has replaced its science syllabus altogether. “Earlier, we had adapted ours to the CBSE but from this year, we have adopted it [CBSE syllabus] completely,” said S Balbir Singh Dhol, chairperson of the Punjab School Education Board. “We have the same syllabus and can compete at the national level.”

Engineering exam stress

Odisha – which is in the process of shifting its higher secondary classes to the CBSE system – joined the Joint Entrance Examination (Main), conducted by the central board for admission to engineering colleges, in 2013. Candidates from the state have been writing the national-level JEE (Main) instead of a state exam since 2014. “The Council of Higher Secondary Education recommended we change,” said BN Mishra, controller, exams, for the state board. “Till now, we had the old syllabus.”

Aimed at regulating admission to all centrally-funded technical institutions, some states and any other participating institution, the JEE (Main) replaced the All India Engineering Entrance Examination – also conducted by the CBSE – in 2012. It is also a qualifying examination for admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology, and the top 1.5 lakh scorers are eligible to write the JEE (Advanced).

While the exam originally took the board examination score, along with the entrance test score, into consideration to decide the rank of a candidate, the JEE (Main) 2017 has replaced this with an eligibility criterion that requires candidates to have secured either a minimum 75% in their Class 12 board examination (state or central) or a score in the top 20 percentile. Therefore, board examination results have ceased to matter.

Maharashtra, too, joined the JEE (Main) system with Odisha in 2013, but opted out in 2015. And in 2016, it conducted a single state test for both engineering and medicine. Over 3.9 lakh candidates appeared for it. Explaining why the state had decided to opt out, Higher and Technical Education Minister Vinod Tawde said the private coaching industry was exploiting the gap between central and state syllabi. The same reasoning is now being given by states opposed to the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for medicine and dentistry.

The CBSE’s statistics show that in 2016, 12 of the top 20 rank-holders in the JEE (Main) were from schools affiliated to the central board – this despite marks in board exams being a factor then.

Now that the state has no choice but to conduct centralised tests, an official in the Directorate of Technical Education, Maharashtra, students and teachers shared their concerns with the Hindustan Times last week. Krishnakumar Patil, secretary in the Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education, pointed out that the state had already redesigned its syllabus once to make it compatible with the National Curriculum Framework 2005. “Whenever there is any change in the system, we have changed,” said Patil. “The board of studies which frames syllabi will consider it. Right now, there is no change.”

However, for Sudhanshu Bhushan from the department of higher and professional education at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, examinations getting “centralised and standardised” is a good move. “This may not be good for the social sciences or the humanities, but in the sciences there will not be much variation in syllabus based on region,” he said. “Plus, it will put a check on all sorts of irregularities in admissions.”

Language, location matter

A difference in standards is not the only problem critics of centralised exams speak of. Many states also argue that it limits access for students from rural areas and various linguistic backgrounds.

The Students Islamic Organisation has moved the Supreme Court over the fact that the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test is not conducted in Urdu, which they say impacts access – although there is practically no medical education programme in India that is not in English. “It is a shame that there are no courses in regional languages because this impacts everyone studying in vernacular-medium schools,” said the organisation’s Thouseef Madikeri. “Also, after the Right to Education Act, more students will graduate from schools now.” (The 2009 law entitles all children between six and 14 years of age to free and compulsory education).

However, officials of the Ministry of Human Resource Development countered these concerns by pointing out that the central testing service “will be an ultra high-tech body”, the mode will be online, and the paper “can be translated into any language”.

Madikeri also pointed out that there are generally fewer centres for national tests than for those conducted by states. “For the state examination for medicine in Karnataka, there would be a centre in every district,” he said. “For NEET [National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test], there are just four in the state. Students from rural areas find it difficult and expensive to sit these exams.”

The number of examination centres for the national-level exam was increased from 80 in 2016 to 103 this year because the number of applicants rose from 8 lakh to 11.4 lakh. A similar pattern for engineering, argued Madikeri, would restrict access to those courses as well. Over 11.3 lakh candidates wrote the JEE (Main) last year.