On Monday, the Supreme Court lifted the stay on declaration of results of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, 2017. The Central Board of Secondary Education – which conducts the public exam that regulates admissions to 95,000 undergraduate medical and dentistry seats – is now free to make public the results of the May 7 test, for which over 11.3 lakh aspirants had registered.

The results were originally scheduled to be released on Thursday (June 8) and are now expected to be out by June 26, media reports said.

The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court had on May 24 stopped the board from declaring the results after a group of candidates in Tamil Nadu who had appeared for the English paper filed a petition alleging that the board had framed vastly different questions for the Tamil version of the paper, which was much easier. A similar case was filed in the Gujarat High Court by petitioners who had opted for the paper in the Gujarati medium. They, too, claimed the difference in questions had led to significant variations in difficulty levels. Two petitions were filed in the Calcutta High Court in June as well.

The Central Board of Secondary Education defended its decision, saying it had framed different questions to prevent leaks but had carefully moderated the difficulty levels. On Friday, it moved the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the Madras High Court order.

With the top court’s interim order also forbidding High Courts to hear cases related to this year’s National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, the matter seems to have been laid to rest, for now at least. But the problem of maintaining both secrecy and fairness in such a large-scale public exam is far from resolved.

Language problem

After it replaced various state mechanisms for admission into regional medical colleges, the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, 2017 was conducted in 10 languages – Hindi, English, Gujarati, Marathi, Odia, Bengali, Assamese, Telugu, Tamil and Kannada. Urdu will be added to the list next year, as directed by the Supreme Court in April.

Around 8%-10% of examinees opted for papers in languages other than English, according to the Central Board of Secondary Education.

The protests began soon after the exam. Candidates from Gujarat and West Bengal complained that question papers in the regional languages were tougher. The Tamil Nadu petitioners, on the other hand, claimed the Tamil version was easier than the English one.

Shakti Malarkodi, one of nine candidates to approach the Madras High Court, said, “Students who opted for Tamil got questions from the state board syllabus and their paper was easier.” The Trichy student wrote the exam in English. “My only aim was to study medical sciences and now that is gone,” she told Scroll.in over phone.

On Sunday, Twitter user Nibedita M Choudhury announced on the social networking site that a petition – a second one – had been filed in the Calcutta High Court over the “epic proportion of victimisation of vernacular languages” in the exam.

The Supreme Court’s order of Monday does not solve their problem. Most of those who felt victimised by the Central Board of Secondary Education’s paper-setting had demanded a fresh exam. But others, who blamed “regional politics” for the court cases and the stay order, are pleased.

A question of uniformity

Candidates had expected the same set of questions to be translated into 10 languages – the standard practice in such entrance exams, including those for engineering courses.

“The basic tenet of the Supreme Court order on NEET was that uniformity was required all over India,” said Dr Gulshan Garg, chairman of Sankalp Charitable Trust, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation. The centralised exam has always been controversial, having been introduced and withdrawn multiple times on the basis of various Supreme Court orders since 2012. The Sankalp Trust had argued in favour of its introduction.

“If you set different questions, how is the exam uniform?” Garg asked. “On paper you can claim they were all of the same difficulty level but such moderation and normalisation standards are imaginary.”

A protest against the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test last year. The exam has been introduced and withdrawn multiple times since 2012, when it was proposed. (Credit: HT)

Different from engineering test

Conducting a large-scale public exam in multiple languages while minimising chances of paper leaks is delicate business. With every language added, more individuals get involved in the highly confidential process of setting and translating question papers, explained KV Krishna, who chaired the organising council for the Joint Entrance Examination-Advanced in 2016, another highly competitive public entrance exam through which students are admitted to the 23 Indian Institutes of Technology.

The entrance exam for engineering programmes is held in two rounds. The Central Board of Secondary Education conducts the Joint Entrance Examination-Main through which aspirants get seats in centrally-run engineering institutions and regional ones run by participating states. Over 11.2 lakh wrote the exam this year. The top 2.2 lakh candidates to qualify for the JEE-Main are eligible for the JEE-Advanced, which is managed by the IITs and is conducted in English and Hindi.

“We just translate,” said Krishna. “We cannot afford to change questions. In examinations with such high stakes, even a single mark can lead to a lawsuit.”

However, he agreed with the Central Board of Secondary Education’s point of view on multiple languages increasing the scope for leaks. In the case of a single set of questions across languages, a paper leak in any of the 10 languanges would require all examinees to retake the test. But framing different sets of questions allows the impact of a potential leak to be limited to the language in which it happened.

At the same time, Krishna believes that “setting different papers and making them equivalent is very tricky”. He explained, “You can do it for some aptitude tests where stakes are low and you can have different papers across sessions.”

Dheeraj Sanghi, dean of Indraprastha Institution of Information Technology, Delhi, who till last year held the same position at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, is also sceptical of the board’s claim of uniform difficulty levels. He said the JEE-Main’s online and offline versions have different questions.

“Also, earlier, we held exams in more languages if there were enough candidates,” he added. “Papers were translated. When grading was manual, there was concern that if the number of candidates was very small, secrecy would be compromised. But with machine-grading, organisers should be able to offer more languages.”

And in the case of multiple-choice-questions, answers are not written but marked out on optical mark recognition sheets. The medium of the questions is, thus, not evident from the answer sheets.

English, Hindi

There are few such keenly contested public exams that are held in more languages than English and Hindi. Except for the regional language and literature papers, these are the only two options for the civil services recruitment exam conducted by the Union Public Service Commission.

The Central Teacher Eligibility Test is also conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education in these two languages, as was the All India Pre-Medical Test – which was replaced by the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test.

Similarly, the board’s policy for the Joint Entrance Examination-Main is different from the one it has for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test. This year, the JEE-Main was conducted in English, Hindi and Gujarati because it, too, regulates admission to some regional institutions. But each paper is bilingual, including questions in English.

While states have often cited language to reject the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, many experts, including Garg, pointed out that most programmes in medicine are taught in the English medium. “They will have to study in English anyway,” he said.

On the other side of the debate is the Students’ Islamic Organisation, which had fought for the exam to be conducted in Urdu. It had argued that with the emphasis now on school education, there were more children studying in vernacular mediums and not holding the test in their language would restrict their access to higher education.