May 14 was a big day for thousands of aspiring young law students across the country. It was the day the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) entrance exam was to be held – 51,000 candidates, 2,175 seats across 18 national law colleges. The application fee, a glorious Rs 4,000. The test centres were spread across the length and breadth of a country desperately in need of good lawyers. Most candidates were 17-year-olds, not quite adults but almost there. They had spent the last two years holed up at home, desperately cramming a series of sometimes relevant, sometimes absurd facts, taking and re-taking CLAT mock exams.
These young people, among whom my son was one, were convinced that their hard work would pay off, that they would actually manage to achieve the impossible – attempt and solve correctly, in two hours flat all, if not most of the 200 questions from English, general knowledge, math, legal aptitude and logical reasoning. Two hours that would feel like a culmination of endless prepping and missed playtime. The only god these young people had known for two gruelling years was CLAT. And on May 14, that god failed many.
CLAT 2017 proved to be a perfect example of all that is desperately wrong with our testing system. Riddled with badly designed, erroneous questions many of which had more than one correct answer, the exam was like something straight out a horror movie. This one unfolded on a particularly hot summer afternoon and after everyone goes home, there is respite for a short while.
Then, the horror movie resumes with the CLAT committee uploading the answer key along with the candidates’ answers and scores. A generous two day window is provided for candidates to “object” to the answer key, failing which their fates will be sealed. This window allows the candidates time to reflect on the question paper and on the answers they picked. Many find, to their horror, that the answer key is a mess. And so are their scores. Some find that their answers were not recorded by the system. A technical glitch? Quite possibly, but how is one to prove it? At first, the link to the answer key redressal system is, for a while, carefully hidden within the copious folds of CLAT’s badly designed website. Some persistent candidates manage to find it. Others give up and go back to believing in next year’s CLAT god. Eventually, someone sets this right and the link becomes clearly visible on the website.
With the announcement of the answer key, the Pandora’s box on which everyone has been sitting all along is now open for viewing. At least five or six questions have no correct answers. For some questions, the answer are ambiguous. And really, how does one account for the time a candidate has spent on a question that had no correct answers or contained ambiguities? In the mathematics section and the reading comprehension sections, candidates are likely to have revisited questions, wasting precious time in the process of re-calculating sums, only to find again there are no correct answers. But then, this is how we like to build character – 200 questions and 120 minutes. A simple calculation tells us that students who went back to check these incorrect and ambiguous questions may have spent at least seven to eight minutes re-doing those questions, meaning they would have lost out on the 12 odd questions they may otherwise have attempted.
While a candidate may choose to challenge the answer key, how can they be sure that those who have picked the answer that is in line with the key provided are marked down? The process of challenging the answer key is in itself ambiguous and flawed, requiring the candidate to “upload documents that refer and justify your objection”. While many may be capable of checking the answer keys to questions involving comprehension, logic and elementary mathematics, it is only those who are trained in law who will be able to evaluate the correctness of questions in the legal section. It is also clear that for each mark, the ranks drop substantially, leading to opportunities missed by a ridiculous whisker. How can a candidate be sure that his or her rank is correct after all their fellow candidates have made their appeals? A re-exam is perhaps the only fair solution to this fiasco but since when has fairness been a strong point with our educationists?
Someone has started a petition on change.org. There is talk of filing a PIL. Hark back to 2015 when Shamnad Basheer, former NUJS Kolkata professor and founder of the NGO, Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court seeking a permanent CLAT body and greater transparency in the exam. His petition pointed to several grave lapses in the conduct of the exam. In its counter-affidavit filed in response to Basheer’s petition, the Bar Council of India offered to conduct the Common Law Entrance Test. It is not clear what has become of that.
In the meantime, thousands of candidates, including my son, wait in hope. They hope that the amended answer key will be put up. They hope that their scores will go up, that they will make the cut – whatever that means in systems such as these. They hope that their god will return to them, a better and stronger god.
The convener of CLAT 2017, A. Lakshminath has stated that an expert committee is being set up to look into the concerns raised by students and experts. One wonders though, how the committee is going to address that little matter of close to 20 erroneous questions.
No doubt, the dust will settle over this edition of CLAT as well. And many broken hearts will be swept under the carpet.
The author, a parent of a student who took the CLAT exam, wishes to remain anonymous,