Glaring mistakes in the biology question paper of the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test 2020 (NEET) were pointed by a group of experienced teachers from Hyderabad to the National Testing Agency (NTA).
Lakhs of medical college aspirants wrote the exam on September 13 amidst the raging Covid-19 pandemic. NTA has been directed by the Supreme Court to declared the NEET 2020 results on October 16. The final answer key is also expected along with it.
Three teachers, who were part of the panel that drafted the syllabus for Telangana’s Intermediate Public Examination (IPE), the equivalent of CBSE’s Class XI and XII, have pointed out anomalies in 8 questions in the biology question paper. Their factsheet challenging the paper says that both Question No. 32 in Set G3 of NEET and the four multiple choice options given are wrong. The question asks, “Embryological support for evolution was disproved by?” and the key released by NTA in the last week of September names Prussian-Estonian embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer (option 4) as the correct answer. The other options given were Alfred Wallace, Charles Darwin and (Aleksandr) Oparin.
The question and its corresponding answer options would have befuddled even embryologists, the faculty members say. Why? At a basic level the question misreads the theory of evolution to which von Baer had contributed, their objection says.
NTA had allowed different stakeholders including students to raise objections to its NEET answer key between September 27 and 29. The faculty members have however, written an open letter to the NTA to point out errors.
For evolution enthusiasts, here’s what went wrong. While von Baer had drafted embryological laws which did disprove his predecessor Ernt Haeckel and his theory of embryonic recapitulation—the theory that embryos of higher forms of life ‘recapitulate’ or resemble the adults in lower ones—he had not negated the evidence for evolution in embryos of different organisms. For example, one of his scientific theories states that embryos of some organisms resemble embryos of other organisms. English naturalist Charles Darwin had, in fact, “drawn from von Baer’s embryological laws to support his scientific theory of evolution by natural selection—the basis for modern evolutionary studies,” Jagan Mohan Rao, a biologist based in Hyderabad, told HuffPost India.
Rao prepared the factsheet and list of objections to the NEET 2020 question paper along with two other senior biologists—E.S.R.K Prasad and M.B. Tilak. The three senior biologists note in their factsheet, “von Baer never ever disapproved ‘embryological support’. Had he disapproved embryological evidence for evolution he would never have entered the annals of history as the father of embryology!”
This objection to the NEET question paper and seven others (Set G3, Questions 1, 15, 45, 74, 84, 88 and 90), which the teachers have released, raise troubling questions about the only national examination which is the gateway for admissions to Medical Council of India (MCI) approved medical colleges in India. The teachers have also pointed out that some other questions are ambiguous and display poor understanding of the concepts. This year’s exam was held despite protests by thousands of students who were unable to prepare and appear for the exam during the pandemic.
NTA’s director general Vineet Joshi told HuffPost India that “objections are a matter of academic debate”. “All objections will be taken into consideration and the final key will make the required corrections, if any,” he said.
However, the final key for NEET is released along with the results and is considered absolute, unless any stakeholder takes the matter to a court of law.
“It is nearly impossible to make corrections after the results are out as court battles are long-drawn,” Rao rued.
NEET-2020 results are expected to be released by the second week of October.
NTA, which was instituted in 2017, first overruled state-level entrance exams for admissions to medical colleges, such as the two-tier medical entrance system that Tamil Nadu used to conduct. In 2017, the Tamil Nadu government had to accept NEET scores as the criterion for medical admissions as against the Class XII marks of students. That year, S Anitha, a Dalit and 17-year-old Class XII topper whose father was a daily wage labourer, died by suicide as she was denied a medical seat on account of NEET. In 2020, NTA has overruled all separate medical entrance examinations including the ones conducted by the boards of all 13 All India Institutes of Medical Science (AIIMS) and Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical and Research (JIPMER) and NEET is now the criteria for admissions to these premier colleges.
This year, 15.97 lakh students had registered for NEET and the examination, according to NTA, recorded 85-90% attendance. Several students who had contracted Covid-19 could not write the test this year, though they were offered an alternate chance at the exam. NTA has not yet published the date for the alternate test.
In their objection sheet, the teachers say they were disappointed at the absence of “any questions which need thinking, reasoning and application of logical skills”. This is a criticism that anti-NEET protesters in Tamil Nadu, who have been opposing the test since 2016, have often raised.
Speaking to HuffPost India, Prince Gajendra Babu, who has been at the forefront of anti-NEET agitation in Tamil Nadu, explained, “NEET does not allow students to critically analyse the subject. The NTA question paper basically maintains the status quo and the student is expected to know only one answer which the question paper setter deigns correct. The student is not allowed to understand and deconstruct the material in the text.”
Batting for medical admissions based on higher secondary scores, Gajendra Babu added, “A higher secondary classroom is where the attitude and aptitude of the student towards medical sciences can be tested”. Students from backward socio-economic backgrounds benefit from admissions based on higher secondary scores as against NEET, he explained.
Rao, who retired as a senior biology faculty member from a private college in Telangana, also found that the question paper displays poor understanding of some concepts in the CBSE textbooks.
“This year, medical seat aspirants got an ambiguous, half-baked question paper which displays poor subject knowledge,” he said. The biology section of the paper, which includes questions from zoology and botany, has 90 questions which carry 360 marks. Each right answer carries four marks and any wrong answer gets a negative mark. “As there is negative marking, the NTA should have ensured an error-free paper,” Rao said.
As an example, he pointed out that the error in question 90 was based on “misreading of exactly 16 sentences from Class XII CBSE textbook”.
Question no. 90 asks, “Some dividing cells exit the cell cycle and enter vegetative inactive stage. This is called quiescent stage (G0). This process occurs at the end of?” was framed wrong because cells do not exit at the end of G1 phase but in the middle of it, the biologists said. Other errors in the question paper were also due to similar wrong readings of the subject at hand, Rao explained. In another instance, the very first question in the Set G3 paper started with an error. The question asked, “Identify the wrong statement with reference to transport of oxygen”. While the student would have expected one wrong statement and three right ones in the corresponding multiple choice answers, they were given three wrong statements and one right one.
Ambiguous questions can drain students who end up wasting a lot of time on guessing the paper- setter’s interpretation of the subject, Prof. Prasad said. “There could be students who guess the right answer from the given options but that defeats the purpose of the test which aims to find the medical aspirants with in-depth knowledge of the subject,” he rued.
Errors in NEET question papers are even more disappointing as the Supreme Court had consistently upheld NTA’s decision to hold the test even in states which have vehemently opposed its imposition. In a 2017 ruling on Tamil Nadu’s petition for exemption from the examination, the SC declared NEET “the only basis for admission to medical colleges in the state”. This year, hearing several petitions from states including West Bengal, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, the court had upheld NTA’s decision to conduct the examination on schedule in September even though the agency could not assure strict adherence to Covid-19 social distancing protocols in test centres.
What’s worse, the NTA charges Rs. 1,000 as fee per objection. The Hyderabad-based faculty members would have had to shell out Rs. 8,000 to raise objections to 8 questions had they opted to submit the factsheet instead of approaching the press with an open letter to NTA. The test, which is conducted in 11 languages including English, Hindi, Assamese, Bangla, Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Odia, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu, attracts a wide range of test-takers who come from various socio-economic backgrounds, and not all of them can afford to pay a hefty fee to raise objections. According to NTA’s data, in 2019, just 2.86 lakh students out of 7.97 lakh students who qualified for the test were from the unreserved category. The rest were from historically marginalised communities including Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs. “Injustice done to even one student is grave. In such a case the agency should not have charged a fee from those who want to raise objections. Those who cannot afford it will not be able to make their voice heard,” Rao said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.