Scrutinising the procedure for awarding compensatory marks in NEET 2024

Image: Hindustan Times

The results for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) 2024, were declared by the National Testing Agency (NTA) on the evening of June 4, as the entire nation was focused on the general election results. Students and parents were taken by surprise by the sudden declaration of the NEET results which were originally scheduled to be declared only on June 14.

Soon the news of 67 candidates securing AIR 1 with a perfect score of 720/720 and the high mark inflation this year caused worry to the students as this meant that the cut-offs would be sky high. Moreover, the claim that a few students were found to have scored 718/720 and 719/720 (which are impossible to get in NEET, as the marking scheme only awards +4 for right answer, -1 for the wrong answer and 0 if the question is not attended) causing confusion and suspicion among students. Further, the posts which circulated showing a few students with roll numbers close by to one another having a perfect score of 720/720, implying that they all possibly attended the exam from the same centre, only made matters worse.

Apprehensive students and parents took to social media to voice their concerns over the validity of the results. This prompted the NTA to issue a clarification on X (formerly Twitter). In their statement, the NTA explained that they had received few representations and court cases from candidates who raised concerns over the loss of time during the examination conducted on May 5, 2024. To address these issues, the NTA implemented a normalisation formula, devised and approved by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in a judgment dated June 13, 2018. Addition of marks by this formula resulted in the unexpected scores of 718 and 719. However, this explanation did not satisfy many, who continued to question the integrity of the results and the rationale behind the normalization process. The incident has sparked a broader conversation about the transparency and reliability of high-stakes examinations in India.

In response to this, the NTA released yet another clarification through a press release on June 6. In that, the NTA claimed that the increase in number of candidates from 20,38,596 in 2023 to 23,33,297 in 2024 (an increase of 14%) “naturally” led to an increase in the number of high scorers. However, when we look at the number of toppers (AIR 1) from just 2 in 2023 to a whopping 67 in 2024, which is much higher than the 14% increase in the number of candidates. NTA also stated that among the 67 toppers with perfect scores, 44 of them got 720 due to revision in one answer key of Physics and 6 candidates got 720 due to compensatory marks awarded for loss of time. This still leaves us with 17 candidates who scored 720, which cannot entirely be attributed to the 14% increase in the number of candidates.

Regardless of the explanations, such mark inflation of unprecedented magnitude has a grave impact on the morale of students and tutors. For them, this means that even a very high score in a competitive exam like NEET, that demands tremendous efforts on their part to achieve, does not guarantee a decent result, which not only leaves them in a highly precarious state but also undermines their trust in the examination (and the education) system. Hence, the NTA must acknowledge the gravity of the issue instead of trying to write it off as a trivial consequence of increase in the number of candidates.

The judgement referred by the NTA for giving compensatory marks was for the case of Disha Panchal vs Union of India where the Supreme Court addressed issues with the conduct of the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) 2018. Due to technical glitches and mismanagement, many candidates faced difficulties, such as login failures and interruptions, leading to significant time loss during the exam. The Court ordered the application of a normalisation formula to adjust scores for affected candidates. There are multiple issues with using this judgment and its normalization formula for an exam like NEET. 

Online Vs Offline

The first major difference between the CLAT 2018 and the NEET 2024 exam is the mode of administration. The CLAT 2018 exam was conducted online, in which the students log into a system that meticulously tracks their activity. This system records the exact login time and technical glitches which allows the organising agency to determine with precision the exact amount of time lost by each student during the exam.

In contrast, the NEET exam was conducted in offline mode, making it impossible to accurately determine and compensate for any disruptions or time lost during the examination process. This fundamental difference in the mode of exam and data tracking facilities has significant implications for how the issue of time loss should be addressed and rectified in these different high-stakes exams.

In the press release, NTA mentioned that to address the concerns raised by the candidates regarding loss of examination time, factual reports of the functionaries and CCTV footages from the concerned exam centres were used to ascertain the time lost and with this data, the students were compensated using the formula devised and used for the CLAT 2018 case. Using CCTV footages to determine the time lost cannot be considered a valid replacement to the online logs which recorded the time lost to the second. The uncertainties introduced by this method of using CCTV footage to determine the time lost undermines the revered objective nature of the NEET exam itself.

In competitive exams like NEET, the discriminant at play between candidates of equal or similar subject mastery is often simply time management during the exam. It is a scenario in which time has the potential to almost convert into a rise in rank. In NEET, even a small difference in mark can result in a large difference in rank. Hence, not being precise and meticulous about time lost or compensatory marks is unfair to all the candidates and seriously brings into question the fairness of the exam.

Grievance Redressal

The second notable difference pertains to the grievance redressal mechanism established during the CLAT 2018 proceedings in the Supreme Court. On May 25, 2018, the Supreme Court issued an interim order that set up a grievance redressal committee composed of several judges and professors. This committee was tasked with examining every single complaint received from the candidates regarding the exam.

Moreover, the Supreme Court mandated the creation of a dedicated email account for students to submit their grievances. This email address was shared on the official CLAT website, ensuring that every candidate had ample time and opportunity to report any issues that they had encountered during the exam, particularly concerning lost time due to technical problems. 

The students were given a specific period to lodge their complaints. The grievance committee was then responsible for reviewing the complaints, assessing the validity of the grievances, and providing appropriate recommendations or decisions to the Supreme Court within a specified timeframe. This meticulous process ensured a thorough examination of all concerns, which contrasts sharply with the current handling of grievances in the case of NEET where no such open grievance redressal mechanism was set up to ensure the opportunity for all candidates to raise complaints on the conduct of the exam. Notably, in the press release, NTA informed that 1563 candidates, out of the 23 lakh candidates who appeared for NEET, were compensated.

In the case of CLAT 2018, the committee concluded in their report that the majority of the issues with the exam stemmed from the online nature of the exam. They found that many students experienced difficulties with the initial login process, and multiple login attempts further exacerbated the system’s performance issues. The report highlighted significant software and hardware inefficiencies that magnified these problems. The organizing agency’s failure to provide adequate and efficient software and computers was a critical factor contributing to these interruptions. Additionally, power failures at various centers caused further loss of time and disrupted the students’ concentration, impeding their smooth performance during this high-stakes test.

These findings underscore that the issues faced during CLAT 2018 were primarily due to its online mode of administration. In contrast, NEET 2024, conducted in an offline mode, presented a completely different set of challenges that differs fundamentally from those in an online setting.

Suggestions by the Committee

The committee proposed two potential courses of action to the Supreme Court. The first option was to cancel the entire test and reconduct it. However, the committee did not recommend this due to the significant logistical challenges. Instead, the committee favored a second approach, which was ultimately accepted. This method involved compensating students with additional marks to account for the time lost due to technical issues. The committee acknowledged that it lacked the expertise to devise an appropriate formula for this compensation. Therefore, they recommended that the Supreme Court appoint a competent statistician to develop a fair formula for awarding extra marks to the affected candidates.

The committee also recommended that, since an initial rank list had already been published, the updated rank list with normalized marks should not affect the existing rankings. To accommodate these additional entrants, an equal number of supernumerary seats were to be created on an ad hoc basis, ensuring that the students who were initially ranked did not lose their positions. The Supreme Court stated that it accepted this uncustomary practice as they did not want the students to suffer due to additional delay and went on to allow the creation of supernumerary seats for the candidates with revised scores to get admission.

In contrast, there was no initial rank list prior to the normalization in NEET 2024. The only rank list released included the updated scores of affected candidates. This lack of an initial ranking list and the subsequent release of a revised rank list without clear explanation about the normalization process has led to suspicion about whose marks have been adjusted and by how much. Unlike the CLAT case, where even supernumerary seats were introduced to maintain fairness, the NEET process appears opaque, leaving students unsure of how their scores were calculated and how the normalization impacted their ranks.

 Normalization formula for CLAT 2018

The entire normalization procedure rests on having the time lost by each candidate in seconds accurately which was possible in the online mode as the precise log in and log out times were recorded by the system.

Since they know the number questions attempted by the students and know how many of it were correct and incorrect, they compute the total original score out of all attempted questions.

They define the quantity Answering Efficiency as the following:

They then compute the number of additional questions the candidate would have attempted had there been no time loss using:

The number of additional questions so obtained is rounded to the nearest whole number, e.g. if we get 14.31, it is rounded to 14 (as apparent in the image above) and if we get 14.52, it is rounded to 15.

Now, they add this to the actual number of questions attempted to get the revised total number of questions attempted i.e, the total number of questions that the candidate would have attempted had there been no time loss.

To calculate the revised number of correctly and wrongly answered questions, they linearly extrapolate the ratio of correct and incorrect answers to the actual number of questions attempted onto the revised number of total questions attempted.

Both the revised number of right and wrong answers are rounded off to the nearest whole numbers. From the revised number of correct and wrong answers thus obtained, the normalized scores are calculated as per the exam’s marking scheme.

NTA, in the press release, claimed that it was due to the implementation of formula devised for the CLAT 2018 case, that two candidates got 718 and 719 marks respectively. However, according to the CLAT 2018 normalization procedure, the formula is used to compute the revised number of questioned answered correctly and wrongly (which are whole numbers) onto which the examination’s existing marking scheme is applied on. In NEET, the revised number of correct answers would be awarded +4 each and the revised number of wrong answers -1 each. Hence, while the normalized scores would be different from the original scores, the formula application does not explain the impossible scores such as 718 or 719, which is not allowed by the marking scheme. So even if NTA implemented this formula devised for the CLAT 2018 case, no candidate should be getting 719 or 718 marks. This raises the question of whether NTA actually implemented this formula and if so, whether it was implemented properly without errors. This discrepancy demands that NTA be transparent about the formula they used for revised scores and the rationale behind the method of adaptation of the formula in all intermediate steps in the process of normalization for public scrutiny.

We would like to note here that the procedure for normalization is not a simple awarding of certain number of marks for each minute lost commonly to all students affected. Rather, it factors in the accuracy rate (the ratio of actual number of right answers to the number of questions attempted) of each candidate in calculating their compensation. This is akin to the (sometimes controversial) application of the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern rule in cricket which factors in the run rate of the team to compute the revised target in a match interrupted by rain. Applying a simplified DLS method in a high-stakes competitive exam that decides the future of students requires careful deliberations and considerations. To ensure that the limitation of this system does not affect students, it is advisable to accommodate the candidates who gained eligibility with revised marks by creation of additional seats.

Moreover, based on the committee’s report, the Supreme Court recognized that, given the precise login and logout times recorded for each candidate, it was possible to accurately determine the actual time each candidate had available during the exam. This online data allowed for an exact calculation of the time lost by each student due to technical issues. As discussed earlier, this is not applicable for NEET, which is an offline exam.

In conclusion, the NTA has not provided a transparent and public explanation for the use of this specific formula for NEET, an offline exam. The ambiguity in the way in which this formula was applied raises concerns. There was no grievance redressal mechanism in place for all the candidates to utilize to represent the difficulties they faced. These, along with the sudden, rushed release of the NEET results on the night of the election counting day further exacerbates concerns about transparency and accountability. This situation has understandably led to widespread apprehension and frustration among students and parents who are now unsure of the fairness of the exam. NTA must come forward to explain the rationale behind its decisions and answer all the questions of the public.

Sulochan R is a PhD candidate in Science Education at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai.

Pranav Jeevan P is a PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence at IIT Bombay.



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