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SC Cautions against 001% Error in NEET, Consolidated Hearing on July 8

SC Cautions against 001% Error in NEET, Consolidated Hearing on July 8

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, June 18: Taking a very serious view of the complaints of alleged irregularities in conducting the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET-UG) 2024 for medical admissions, the Supreme Court on Tuesday came down heavily on the National Testing Agency (NTA), which conduct the nation-wide examinations, making it absolutely clear that not even an iota of error would be acceptable in one of the most important testing systems in the country.

“Even if there is 0.001% negligence on the part of anyone, it should be thoroughly dealt with,” Justice S.V. Bhatti, part of a Vacation Bench headed by Justice Vikram Nath, addressed the lawyers appearing for the Centre and NTA.

The Supreme Court – while hearing a batch of petitions over the alleged irregularities in the exam – said it expected a “timely action” from the NTA and that the agency must ensure that all candidates were treated fairly.

“As an agency which is conducting the examination, you must act fair. If there is a mistake, say yes, this is a mistake, and this is the action we are going to take. At least that inspires confidence in your performance,” the bench of Justice Vikram Nath and Justice SVN Bhatti told the NTA.

The court said the NTA, which holds the exam for medical admissions in the country, should be able to take a firm stand and, if necessary, own up to having made mistakes if there were any made while holding the NEET-UG 2024, Justice Bhatti addressed advocate Kanu Agrawal, appearing for the NTA and the Union government. Justice Nath agreed with his companion judge, remarking orally that the allegations on NEET were “very serious”.

Justice Bhatti told the Centre and NTA that they should not treat the petitions filed by NEET aspirants and academicians as adversarial. “Imagine a person who has played fraud on the system becoming a doctor. That would be deleterious to society,” Justice Bhatti pointed out to the government and the NEET agency.

Justice Bhatti highlighted the honest effort put in by lakhs of children to prepare for NEET exam. Cheating thwarted honest effort and ambition. “We all know the labour children put in, especially for this exam,” Justice Bhatti emphasised.

Mr Agrawal beseeched the judges to not come to an adverse conclusion against the NTA and the government before they had filed their responses to myriad petitions filed in the apex court. The counsel said there was no doubt about the preparations children put in for NEET. “We were discussing [outside the courtroom] the difficulties that children undergo,” Mr Agrawal said.

“Your stand outside ought not change the moment you enter the court,” Justice Bhatti reacted. The judge said all that was required was an honest examination of what may have gone “wrong.” “If someone sits down at a table and goes through the performance of most candidates, one can find out what has gone wrong… how many cell phones were used and what were the places to which papers had come… We want timely action,” Justice Bhatti spoke for the Bench.

The hearing was based on two petitions filed by a total of over 30 candidates urging the apex court to take cognisance of the NEET controversy. The court has seen several petitions filed with similar prayers since the NEET results were declared early in June. Petitioners urged the court to ask for an investigation report on the controversy ahead of the counselling date of July 6.

Justice Nath issued notice and directed the Union and NTA to submit their responses in two weeks. The Vacation Bench listed the case for hearing along with the other petitions challenging various aspects of the conduct of NEET-UG 2024 on July 8.

Last week, the NTA told the Supreme Court that grace marks given to 1,563 candidates in the NEET-UG exam would be scrapped and the candidates had the option of taking the exam again on June 23. The results of the re-test will be declared before June 30, the top court was told.

If any of these candidates chose to not take the re-test, their earlier score would be reinstated without the extra marks.

The NEET (UG) examination was conducted by the NTA on May 5 at 4750 centres in 571 cities (including 14 cities abroad) for more than 24 lakh candidates. Results for the medical entrance examination were declared on June 4. Allegations of an exam paper leak soon surfaced. As many as 67 students got a perfect score of 720/720. Grace marks were given to several students allegedly to compensate for loss of time at the exam centre.

Many student organisations have protested over the alleged NEET irregularities, including wrong question papers being distributed, Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) sheets being torn, or delays in the distribution of the sheets.

In NEET, students have to answer 180 questions, (MCQ type), totalling 720 marks. For every right answer, the student will score four marks, with one mark deducted for a wrong answer. Hence, only certain marks can be scored by candidates. It was the grace marks that caused confusion, the NTA admitted.

However, this is not the only charge or case in court against NEET 2024. This year there had been multiple charges besides the allegations of paper leak including slow distribution of question papers; providing wrong question paper; wrong OMR sheets; and technical delays.

Post evaluation, there have been complaints about the unusually high number of students (67) who hit the perfect score, 720/720, and about students who scored “statistically impossible” marks, while some cases of cheating by proxy were also unearthed. Other cases pertaining to the question paper leak are still to be heard by the Supreme Court.

In the past, the exam has been dogged by charges of poor organisation and inadequate planning, besides inconsiderate rules on what candidates are allowed to wear to the exam hall. All these charges sparked protests from students and political parties across the country. Political parties called for a fair investigation of the charges and called on the government to conduct a fresh NEET exam. Students had the same demand, to re-conduct the test, on the grounds that the question paper leak had facilitated some students scoring full marks, or, giving them an unfair advantage. Experts and students pointed to how the very idea of starting NEET as a common entrance exam to regulate medical admissions in the country and ensure quality-control of the process would be defeated in the light of all the reported violations.

Following the widespread complaints, the NTA appointed a four-member committee to go into the allegations which found that the compensatory marks awarded to the 1,563 students, resulted in a “skewed situation” and recommended re-test for these 1,563 candidates. The suggestion was accepted by the Supreme Court.

NTA officials attributed an ‘easy paper’ to the unusual number of full scores this year. But students and education experts have already expressed dissatisfaction with the cancellation of the exam only for a few students. Arguing that if the exam can be cancelled for 1,500 students, then that is an admission of error and therefore, they claim that the logical thing would be to cancel the May 5 exam for all candidates and conduct a re-test. It indicates a failure of the system and loss of faith, students complained on social media.

Instead of rendering the pitch even, as a measure of ensuring the quality of candidates entering the medical profession, the way NEET is being conducted has created several additional layers of privilege. For an exam of its size and scale, where over 23 lakh students take the test in about 4,500 centres across the country, in multiple languages, small issues may crop up.

However, the test has been around for nearly a decade, and the experts said it was reasonable to assume that its teething troubles were over. Preventing fraud and application of mind (on the part of the invigilators to give extra time to students who did not have adequate time) should be eminently possible, certainly by the government agencies, the experts said.




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