10 Jun

A steep hike in subject cut-offs in this year’s IIT Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) has raised concerns within the IIT fraternity over whether corrective measures employed to compensate question paper errors possibly helped undeserving candidates.

The concerns were dismissed by a top IIT-JEE official as “tilting at windmills”. But the fact that the aggregate cut-off did not change much in 2010, suggesting that the difficulty level of questions was similar to previous years’, offers legitimacy to these concerns.

The IIT-JEE this year was ravaged by errors in instructions given in question papers. One of the major errors involved instructions, which erroneously switched the labelling on physics and math answer scripts, which are read by an optical mark reader (OMR) machine.

Instructors at all test centres announced the error once it was recognised, but many students had already started marking answer scripts by that time — and these answer scripts were not replaced with fresh ones.

Amid fears that many students might have marked physics answers where they were to mark math answers and math instead of physics for no fault of theirs, the IITs announced a “corrective measure”.

The OMR machine would mark answer sheets meant for physics (or math) for both subjects and award students the higher score. This way, the institutes argued, a student who followed the instructions and marked correct physics (or math) answers on the math (or physics) answer sheet would not lose out.

But in an affidavit before Delhi High Court, an IIT Kharagpur computer science professor, Rajeev Kumar, argued that this corrective measure could inadvertently benefit undeserving students.

Below par students whose incorrect physics answers matched with correct math answers — or the other way round — could receive scores much higher than they deserve, Kumar argued.

A handful of such questions — where an incorrect answer matched the correct answer of the other subject — would suffice to clear the average cut-off in that subject, he argued.

Kumar’s concerns have now triggered a debate within the IITs and among IIT-JEE observers over whether his arguments need a relook, following the hike in subject cut-offs announced by the IITs on Saturday.

The IITs first shortlist students who clear subject cut-offs in each of the three subjects tested — physics, chemistry and math. An aggregate cut-off of total scores across the three subjects is set next, based on the total number of seats available to finalise selected candidates.

The subject cut-offs in physics, chemistry and math this year are 19, 19 and 17 respectively as opposed to 8, 11 and 11 in these subjects last year, according to data released on Saturday by the IITs. The same formula — the average marks of all students in a subject is set as the subject cut-off — was followed both in 2009 and 2010.

The hike could normally be explained by easier questions — or better average performance — this year. But such a scenario would also mean much higher aggregate scores of students on average — 55 as opposed to 30 last year. This, in turn, would translate into a correspondingly higher aggregate cut-off.

The aggregate cut-off in the 2010 JEE, according to the IITs, was 190 as opposed to 178 last year — a difference statistically much smaller than the variation between aggregate averages in 2009 and this year. In other words, while the average scores of students improved, the toppers performed almost similar to their counterparts last year — suggesting the question papers were overall not much easier in 2010 compared with 2009.

Some candidates scoring higher than they deserved, because of the corrective measure, would offer a possible explanation for the hike in subject marks without a corresponding jump in the performance of qualified candidates.

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