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Testing, Testing . . .

Think you take a lot of exams? Not compared to what students in India endure to get into college.

By Jim Yardley in New Delhi

By the time 17-year-old Sadhvi Konchada enters college in the fall, she will have taken 22 separate college entrance exams.

Sadhvi, a high school senior, has daily tutorials, studies constantly, and considers her schedule ridiculous. But it is not uncommon. At her middle-class New Delhi apartment complex, testing is an obsession for families of high school students. Parents gossip about scores, anguish over them, and pray over them. Students spend months preparing for tests—and worrying about them.

"We have to keep them under pressure," says Jaya Samaddar, whose daughter is studying for the national exams given in 10th grade. "We have no other choice."

For the last decade, India's economy has been booming and the ranks of its middle class expanding rapidly. India also has one of the world's youngest populations. All this means that the cutthroat competition has only gotten worse for the limited number of slots in the country's higher-education system.

High school seniors must pass national board exams to graduate from high school. Since university admissions are based overwhelmingly on these—roughly the equivalent of S.A.T.'s—and other entrance exams, testing season has become a period of excruciating pressure for students and their families.

The mania over testing underscores a fundamental disconnect in Indian education: Even as elite Indian students have achieved remarkable success studying overseas, the educational system in India is widely considered to be failing both the tens of millions of students at the bottom, who drop out before high school, and the smaller pool at the top, who are competing for entrance into universities that are too few and underfinanced.

Experts warn that the potential advantages of India's youthful population could become disadvantages if the government cannot improve the education system rapidly enough to give more students a chance at college. Of the 186 million students in India, only about 12 percent are enrolled in higher education, one of the lowest ratios in the world. (Sixty-nine percent of U.S. high school graduates go to college.) During the next decade, India expects another 40 million students.

"If you have 150 million or 160 million children who don't go to college, what is going to happen to them 10 or 15 years from now?" asks Kapil Sibal, the government minister who oversees education.

Higher education presents problems of quantity and quality. India's top students are world-class, but most Indian universities are not, with roughly two thirds of colleges and universities rated below standard.

This creates incredible competition for entrance into elite universities, especially the premier science institution, the Indian Institutes of Technology, or I.I.T. In 2008, 320,000 students took the school's entrance exams for 8,000 vacancies.

A Status Symbol

Parents and students are acutely aware of these odds, and aware that multinational corporations and top Indian companies recruit disproportionately from these schools.

At the East End Apartments, a cluster of high-rise buildings where Sadhvi lives, at least three private tutoring centers give daily support in math, physics, chemistry, and other subjects. Most students are focused on engineering or business.

Tutors post practice-test results in the hallways outside their apartments and text scores to parents, so they can see how their children are stacking up.

Parents fear that a bad score could derail their child's future. But there's also an element of social competitiveness.

"The score of the child has become a status symbol," says parent Jaya Samaddar. "If we go to a party these days, everybody asks me, 'How is your child doing?' No one asks about my health. The question is, 'What is your child's academic status?' "

Her daughter, Meetali, is considering engineering but must score well on the 10th-grade exams to qualify for her school's science "stream." Samaddar says her daughter has not gone to a movie in months.

Domestic critics say the emphasis on standardized exams has overly focused Indian education on rote drilling and test-focused exercises. Next year, the government is eliminating the 10th-grade exams and introducing a new grading system, partly to encourage more creativity and reduce pressure.

Sadhvi Konchada has applied to two top schools in architecture and design, but because those programs are so competitive, she is also applying to five or six engineering schools, each with its own entrance exam. To prepare, she goes to daily tutorials in math and science and also has a special Sunday tutor to, as she puts it, "enhance your creative abilities."

Sadhvi is so busy with test prep that there is one thing she almost never does.

"People hardly go to school," she says. "They rely on their tutorials mainly."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, May 10, 2010)