Test prep in education: Creating a level playing field

In the first of a three-part blog series, we explore how test prep solutions are creating equal opportunities for underprivileged students in India—helping them enter premier educational institutions and gain aspirational jobs.

In India, entrance exams are an integral part of the selection process for top colleges and government jobs. A good performance in a single examination can open the door to new opportunities. It is here that test preparation solutions emerge as an enabler for low-income families—helping them gain access to a college education and white collar jobs.

Recognizing this, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation is committed to creating a level playing field for all students. We want to ensure that students from underprivileged backgrounds have a fair shot at getting into elite colleges and jobs of their choice. We also understand that the existing solutions are not just unaffordable, but also pedagogically unsuitable for students from government and budget private schools, hence, innovation is required in both these areas.

Test prep in India: A challenge and an opportunity

In 2016, 1.2 million Indian students appeared for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE)—conducted for admission to engineering colleges across the country[1]. Only 10,000 of them made it to the 17 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the country’s most sought after technical institutions. With half of India’s population under the age of 25 years, competition for entry into colleges remains fierce.

Since school curriculum does not cover the syllabus for college entrance examinations, most students opt for specialized coaching, or test prep. Entrance into other professional courses, postgraduate education, government jobs, etc. is through specialized testing, and just as competitive.

This has created a market for a supplementary education area industry in India—preparing school and college students to qualify for aspirational jobs through coaching. This model is well established in India, where middle-class families spend up to a third of their incomes on coaching, making it an unaffordable and unsuitable solution for students from underprivileged backgrounds.

The correlation between income and success become clearer when we see that students with both parents as graduates perform almost 30 percent better in JEE than students for whom neither parent is a graduate[2]. In this scenario, high-quality, cost-effective test prep solutions give poor students an equal chance to succeed—providing them with coaching that helps them enter India’s top colleges and gain meaningful and aspirational jobs.

The solution: How our portfolio companies are creating impact

Several areas related to test preparation are still underdeveloped and need our support. For example, it is essential to ensure that test preparation solutions serve the needs of underprivileged children and also provide these students with relevant content. The foundation has begun its efforts to address these gaps by investing in solutions for students from lower-income families in India through three different organizations—Avanti, Edutel and Online Tyari.

  • Avanti uses a tech enabled, flipped-classroom methodology that achieves learning gains for students at one third the cost provided by its competitors—but with similar success rates in the IIT-Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), India’s common engineering entrance examination. This instructional strategy is a type of blended learning that reverses the traditional learning environment by delivering instructional content, often online, outside the classroom. Avanti has also innovated tremendously to create bi-lingual, graded lessons to fill years of learning gaps in their student population.
  • Edutel provides technology-enabled distance education solutions across several business lines, catering to both government and affordable private schools. The organization’s patented solution provides an interactive, two-way classroom engagement with high-quality teachers without bandwidth constraints. It has successfully managed to bring star teachers to students at affordable prices by using a largely unutilized EDUSAT network.
  • Online Tyari, a mobile application, delivers customized, curated and vernacular test prep content over low internet bandwidths. The solution helps applicants prepare for entrance exams to government jobs in the railways, state service commissions, and public sector units. It relies on the extensive use of analytics to provide students with personalized learning for multiple tests.

Several areas related to test preparation are still underdeveloped and need our support. For example, it is essential to ensure that test preparation solutions serve the needs of underprivileged children and also provide these students with relevant content.

While Avanti and Edutel target an aspirational segment for low-income students to get into India’s top colleges, Online Tyari is a mass market solution that focuses on a broader requirement – focusing on preparing students for government jobs. However, what these companies have in common is: 1) relentless focus on creating impact and 2) innovation to achieve this impact for underprivileged students.

Today, these solutions win appreciation from thousands of students every day. Avanti is present in 31 centers and has a 29 percent success rate—impacting 2500 students across 15 cities. Since its launch one- and-a-half years ago, Online Tyari’s  850,000 active users have made about 3.2 million downloads.

The impact created by these solutions show how test preparation can help underprivileged kids, who have suffered through the current education system, enter good colleges and secure aspirational jobs. It is an essential tool in our intervention in the K-12 education system, and is an integral part of our effort to drive education innovation and school system transformation in India.

In the next post in this series, we will share views from students on the impact of test prep and their successes because of their experiences.

[1] “JEE Main: Number of students appearing have declined, says Govt”, The Indian Express, 2016

[2]  “IIT-JEE 2012 Results Analysis”, Indian Statistical Institute, 2013