Utility of CAT
As CAT becomes a computer-based test, it is time to look at the whole procedure critically
By Somonnoy Ghosh
For the first time in 33 years the CAT gets conducted as a computer-based test (CBT) in 2009. From the CAT tutorial placed on the official CAT website to familiarise candidates with the test interface one finds that the CBT this year is likely to be no different from the CAT of last couple of years except for the medium of administering the test. This is a milestone of sorts in the long journey that CAT has charted till now, and I will take this opportunity to reflect on how the test has evolved over the years and what purpose does it really serve.
Let me start with the changing pattern of the test. I took the CAT in December 1991. It comprised about 180 multiple choice questions—tricky but not very difficult. The duration was 120 minutes. A net raw score of 120 (about 70 per cent) or more was good enough to fetch an IIM call. The emphasis of the test was on mental agility, analysis and comprehension. Over the years, one saw the number of questions reduce and the emphasis shift to an increase in the level of difficulty. In fact, more recently the CAT has had 75 questions to be attempted in 150 minutes. Today, a raw score of 35 per cent to 40 per cent results in calls from the IIMs. Clearly, the difficulty level has gone up substantially. This, brings us to the question — why are the IIMs so intent on increasing the level of difficulty? What purpose does it serve? Was the CAT in the 1990’s not good enough as an entrance test? One thing is quite evident. If earlier the CAT served the purpose of identifying students who were intellectually capable enough to undergo the two year programme at the IIMs, the present CAT has become more an instrument of elimination rather than selection. I would also go as far as to contend that the PG programme at the IIMs, or for that matter at any
B-school, does not require the intellectual capability that the present CAT seeks to measure.
If you are unfortunate to get a percentile score of 97 or below then you have to forget about getting into an IIM. Compare this with the GMAT and the US B-schools. A GMAT score of even 650, which is arguably far easier to achieve than 98 percentile in the CAT, can get you into one of the top 25 schools in the US. The students in these schools get excellent jobs after MBA. Then, why this obsession about high CAT scores amongst the IIMs? Why can’t they look at a wider applicant pool and consider factors in addition to the CAT score for shortlisting students? Let’s take a look at the consequences of this practice. The PGP batches at most IIMs have over 80 per cent of engineers — a natural outcome of the CAT’s overemphasis on quantitative skills. This bias in the intake goes against the desirable attribute of higher diversity in the batch – a critical ingredient for fostering multiplicity of ideas and viewpoints, which are the foundation of robust management practices.
The comparison with the GMAT does not end at the difference in the level of difficulty or the inherent bias of the CAT. A GMAT score is valid for at least three years, whereas the CAT score is valid only for the year that the test was administered for. The US, European and some of the top Asian B-schools say a very simple thing — if you were good enough to score 700 in the GMAT, say in 2007, you would be good enough for admissions in 2010. Your capability has been proven and there is no need to prove it again. Quite logical, right?
On the same count, the IIM’s insisting on the CAT score being valid for only a specific admission year beats logic. Surely, a 98 percentile in CAT 2008 is not inferior to a 98 percentile in CAT 2009? Or perhaps, the CAT is seen by the IIMs to serve a far different purpose than what it was intended to do. Come to think of it, the core business of the IIMs, like that of Wharton or Harvard, is to impart management education. No B-school of any repute in the world involves itself in testing. Why then do the IIMs insist on administering the CAT themselves – that too, not just for themselves but also for over 100 other schools that subscribe to the CAT?
— The writer is director,
Indus World School of Business (IWSB)