National Testing Agency: Technology glitches, hackers could be challenges
TEST CHECKS There’s an urgent need for safety measures to eliminate any chances of cheating, impersonation and corruption in single testing agency
Threats from hackers, possibility of rampant cheating by candidates and tech glitches overshadow the government’s move to set up a single testing agency (National Testing Agency) for Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) for engineering, Graduate Aptitude Test for Engineering (GATE), National Eligibility Test (NET), and other exams, say experts.
Some of the tests are likely to be computer-based andconducted multiple times a year. This will require high-end technology, detailed planning and proper execution for safety and quality.
Testing authorities have to strengthen the system against cheating, impersonation and corruption. According to Dr Bipin Batra, executive director, National Board of Examinations (NBE), all high-stake examinations currently face hacking t hreats. Handling a major examination such as the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and JEEandstandardisation of content could be tricky too.
“The proposed NTA being a specialised agency will have to invest in creation of robust infrastructure as well as best practices to overcome these challenges,” he says.
The system will require constant testing. Eliminating technological glitches and using biometric systems will help, say experts. Biometric capturing at every stage and cross verification of biometric database across years can lead to zero impersonation. Digital technology for distribution of question papers can eliminate the remote chances of paper leak and highly secure virtual private networks can eliminate any chances of cheating and malpractices,” adds Dr Batra.
Lessons also have to be learnt from NBE, which is using such technology for conducting tests such as NEET Postgraduate, NEET Super Specialty and Foreign Medical Graduates Exam.
NBE has smoothly migrated all the entrance and licensing examinations from paper to computer-based testing mode. The popular perception a few years ago was that “medical graduates will not be able to use computers. No such barriers exist as digital technologies are used widely today. However, the conduct of operations remains a challenge as many tier 2 and tier 3 cities in the country do not have requisite infrastructure in terms of internet bandwidth and computer labs,” says Dr Batra.
Conducting entrance tests is not the core function of institutes handling this task today. Authorities of these institutes feel this is an added responsibility. Testing is a specialised job which needs the right blend of technology and operations expertise and should be outsourced to a specialist agency, say experts. It will allow the institutions to concentrate on their core job of policy-making and implementation. Soumitra Roy, country manager, Prometric India, a global testing agency that has conducted tests such as the Common Admission Test (CAT) for IIMs in the past, says India’s biggest challenge is to identify the required technical and physical infrastructure which is conducive to testing.
Online testing can be used for low-stake exams such as HR exams or tests for hiring. Any computer-based test has to be conducted in a proctored environment like that of an entrance test, he says. The government’s aim is to convert all paper-pencil based tests into computer-based tests. While some tests like JEE and CAT are computer-based, the better solution is to convert them to continuous tests rather than conducting them on one or two days and in specific testing windows. “This is a must in a country like ours with a varied demography, infrastructure and low internet bandwidth in certain cities. There have been several instances of candidates not being able to give their best performance due to emergencies on the test day and they end up losing the entire year. If the candidate is unable to schedule the entrance test flexibly and has to lose a year, then what kind of technological and societal advancements are we aiming for?” asks Roy.
Another perception is that paper-pencil based testing is outdated and does not offer the advantages of the computerbased testing platform. “The option of conducting paper-pencil based tests may still be there. However, it needs to be supplemented with robust technology such as biometrics, capturing CCTV recording, electronic database verification, digital image and fingerprints capturing and archival etc,” says Dr Batra. NTA can become the single source of introducing innovation and guiding policy makers on test administration.
There is a need to find perfect balance between technology in testing and operational capabilities. Technology alone cannot solve all problems in testing. Besides test delivery, good content is also necessary for testing agencies. Speaking about tests such as JEE and GATE, Anil D Sahasrabuddhe, chairman, All-India Council for Technical Education, says the number of candidates is likely to go up by two to three times in the next few years. Multiple dates for the exams in a year could also be a possibility to give students the opportunity to improve their performance. Modalities, curriculum etc are yet to be finalised such as whether paper 2 of JEE Main for architecture can be moved online as well. These points will be deliberated in the next few months.
Successfully administrating a test like the CAT is based on a number of factors besides highend technology. According to Prof Tathagata Bandyopadhyay, convenor, CAT 2015, with increase in the size of the pool of candidates, IIMs went for the computer-based test from 2009. The delivery part was outsourced.
“Test construction is still the job of a core group of IIM faculty members who have been doing it for years. It needs tremendous effort, high intellectual capabilities and huge experiences. The integrity and honesty of the people involved is exemplary. Construction of tests should be such that it effectively differentiates the candidates in terms of abilities being tested,” he says. Anumber of cues for the National Testing Agency (NTA) can be taken from foreign agencies conducting Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Most of the tests are held round the year to give a chance to candidates to reschedule dates.
An important thing, however, is to remember that the terms online testing and computerbased testing are interchangeably used, says Soumitra Roy, country manager, Prometric India, a global testing agency.
Online testing means candidates using the internet in real time. In computer-based testing, the internet is used to download the appointment. Then the test is downloaded and kept on the server to be launched on a specific day. “That is how the high-stake exams such as the GRE, TOEFL, United States Medical Licensing Examination, Medical College Admission Test and other major global exams are conducted,” Roy says.
These are all computer-based tests and are conducted several times a year. However, in our country, says Roy, it is not ideal to go for online testing as it increases the chances of hackers sneaking into the item bank, rendering the technology unsafe.
Global exams are in continuous testing mode – with multiple exams in a day or through the year. As Roy says, “At the centre of these exams is the test content which determines its effectiveness and the accurate measurement of the knowledge. This is because computerised testing requires a larger number of test items due to the greater number of test administration dates typical of these models. The item bank becomes a critical element, then, and must be supplemented so that a sufficient number of items, both within specific sub-content areas and overall, are available.”
Some of the testing agencies across the world follow established global practices such as IMS Global Specifications. “This ensures the tests conducted have high integrity and measure knowledge reliably by curbing cheating and by utilising psychometric analysis in developing high quality test items,” he adds.
Globally, some of the large scale examinations have the expertise of the best network security experts, psychometric analysis, professionally trained faculty as item writers, robust software systems and IT practices to create most secure examinations which even the most difficult of imposters will find to penetrate.
Dr Bipin Batra, executive director, National Board of Exams, says, “India being a major player in terms of absolute numbers in higher education, it is time to develop our expertise and create global benchmarks.”