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Engineer Dinesh Negi first thought of having a go at the CAT, the common admission test for the Indian Institutes of Management, in 2004 while working in a software firm. In July, he filled up the forms, and began his preparation in August. Then he faced his first hurdle: 12-13 hour workdays. Studying mostly on weekends, he managed to get 3-4 days leave before the November CAT. The results left him unhappy.

Says Negi Preparation for CAT is all about practising... you need to spend a minimum of three to four hours a day. Since I could not upset my employers, the studies had to be put on the back-burner.

Two years later, in April 2007, he moved to the US and heard about the GMAT. He enrolled and took the test in October. With his workdays having shrunk to eight hours, he had more time to prepare and got a score of 720 out of 800. There were virtually no distractions, says Negi.

He banked this score and waited for his US stint to end before coming back to India and joining the Indian School of Business (ISB) in April 2009. Every year in November, hundreds of thousands of aspiring management students across the country get into a frenzy for the once-a-year CAT. In 2009, the CAT's bid to go paperless was beset by technical problems, raising one important point: why shouldn't the CAT be held through the year, rather than on just one day or through a 10-day window?

While the IIMs are thinking of spreading the exam over 20 or 40 days from the next year, students and experts feel the current examination structure is rigid compared with the GMAT, which allows candidates to create their own preparation schedule and make multiple attempts.

Agrees Prof T.N. Swaminathan, Director (Admissions), Great Lakes Institute of Management: An ondemand testing will not only ease the burden on the infrastructure but will also ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to participate. Also, GMAT scores are valid for almost two years in the world's best B-Schools (actually, five years, but the best schools prefer fresher scores) so those who clear it can bank the score apply for an MBA programme later, according to their convenience.

No. of applicants (2010) 2.5 lakh (In 2009, the number was higher at 2.76 lakh) (2009): 2.41 lakh (Around 20,000 applicants were India-based)
Test format (From 2009) Computer-based Computer-adaptive (Computer-adaptive testing adapts to the examinee's ability level. It varies the difficulty of questions depending on the student's performance)
Cost Rs 1,400 $250 or Rs 11,600
Test window (FROM 2009) 10 consecutive days a year Year round, during working days
Attempts allowed in a year One Five
No. of questions (2009) 60 78+2 essays
Validity of scores 3-4 months 5 years
Test centres 361 across India 430 across 94 countries

But going the GMAT way will not be easy for the testing organisation, in CAT's case the IIMs and Prometric. First, more frequent exams will require a much bigger question bank, and so significant investment in time and money for the testing organisation. Says Prof Subrata Mitra, Admissions Chairperson at IIM Calcutta: Right now, the biggest concern is the paucity of questions. With time, we will be able to build a sizeable item bank.

Soumitra Roy, MD, Prometric India, which managed the CAT 2009 online tests, says students have to change their mindset to tackle multiple testing days. CAT aspirants may choose the latest available testing date prior to any IIM cut-off date.

So, even if the exam were to become available throughout the year, most candidates could attempt it in the last lap, in the mistaken belief that either the exam will become easier or that they will benefit from additional study time, says Roy. Also, unlike in CAT 2009 when IIMs used third-party centres to conduct exams, on-demand testing will require them to tie up with service providers with dedicated testing centres, pushing up costs.

But Madan Padaki, CEO of skills assessment company MeritTrac, says this won't be a big issue. For the service providers, the capex will be higher, but the operating expenditure will be lower. They will break even in five years. And I don't think fees will go up beyond 30 per cent, says Padaki.

Then, some like Gautam Puri, Vice Chairman, Career Launcher, say the test itself should become a computeradaptive one. The current computerbased testing system is flawed ....In CAT 2009, there were 21 different test papers in the 10-day testing window period. The papers were not graded to the same level of difficulty, so a candidate's score may vary from one test to another, says Puri.

In adaptive testing, the items are selected to be appropriate in difficulty to each individual's ability rather than to the mean ability level of a group of examinees. Puri also thinks a bigger test window will significantly reduce the preparation period for candidates. A large number of students are now enrolling with coaching institutes two years in advance. Their anxiety levels will go down if they have multiple attempts in a year, he says.

V. Natarajan, Professor Emeritus, MeritTrac, says a switch to adaptive testing will help both students and the testing organisation, since it requires fewer items to arrive at accurate results. Adaptive testing format, based on item response theory, studies the relationship between an individual test item and an individual test taker, says Natarajan.

Ability of a candidate is directly linked to the difficulty levels and independent of the number of items to be taken. So, it may require just 30 items in CAT to arrive at a candidate's true abilities. Natarajan says the error of measurement in traditional computerbased testing is usually 10 per cent, against 0.1 per cent in computeradaptive testing. With adaptive testing, IIMs will need at most 3,000-4,000 items to begin with but will have to update it regularly.

It's not that the IIMs don't have the resources and talent pool to create such large item banks. Prof Satish Deodhar of IIM Ahmedabad, CAT's convener, says: We have to play many roles teaching, research and offering tests. Harvard does not conduct its own entrance test ...GMAC, the body that conducts the GMAT, does not teach. The clincher could be GMAT's transparency: students get critical tools such as exam format, test preparation material, and even a helpline. CAT, on the other hand, always has something unexpected in store for the students.