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Opinion: Towards a Common Law Accessibility Test (and why CLAT’s test pattern reforms are a terrible idea)

NLSIU 4th-year student Divya Kumar Garg argues that the proposed changes in the CLAT will not help access

Is the Common Law Admissions Test going to become a test of access?
Is the Common Law Admissions Test going to become a test of access?

The recent press release by the CLAT Consortium (or the consortium of National Law Universities) contains possibly the most significant change to the CLAT exam pattern since its inception.

The press release suggests that there will be no Legal Aptitude section in CLAT 2020, and there will be a reduction in the number of questions.

In order to, “get better students to National Law Universities who have competence in reading texts and demonstrate skills in inferential reasoning”, the paper will now contain comprehension based questions from Quantitative Techniques, English, Current Affairs, Deductive Reasoning and Logical Reasoning.

The distribution of questions from each question remains unclear. On a bare perusal of the above five categories, it seems that the Legal Aptitude section has been replaced with the Deductive Reasoning section.

However, questions from deductive reasoning earlier formed part of the Logical Reasoning section, so whether it will continue to be a part of the Logical Reasoning Section or will be a new section altogether is also not clear. Regardless, the noteworthy point is the emphasis on comprehension based questions from all these sections.

A prejudicial tweak

I argue that this tweak in the syllabus and the emphasis on comprehension based questions is prejudicial to a particular set of students: students with schooling from vernacular medium and students from Tier 2 and 3 cities and non-cities.

Before I elaborate on my argument, it is appropriate to consider few facts regarding CLAT and the student profile at NLUs - NLUs have historically been dominated by students from major cities. The number of CLAT aspirants from smaller cities and towns have gradually increased- thanks to the increasing awareness about the exam in such places.

However, one does not see a proportionate increase in the number of students form smaller cities occupying seats in NLUs.

What is even more incontrovertible is the fewer students are coming to NLUs who have had their schooling in vernacular medium. At NLS, in a population of 400 students in the undergraduate program, the number of students from vernacular medium does not even touch double digits. Unarguably, the gates of any institution is governed by its entrance examination- its syllabus, pattern and difficulty level determines the incoming students.

So if the blame for the current student profile at NLUs lies anywhere, it lies with CLAT.

Troubled history

We have gotten our test fundamentally wrong since the beginning and what is even more troublesome is that the consortium instead of ideating on a way to remove the impact that access to an elite education has on the selection process, has in fact strengthened the advantage that students from big cities have.

CLAT’s fundamental flaw is that while it seeks to test the language skills of a candidate, it is conducted in only one language- English. Thus CLAT essentially ends up testing the “English Language skills” of the candidates.

A lot of factors are a determinant in English language skill, and the schooling of the candidate plays a major role in it.

Even if we ignore the case of students with schooling vernacular medium, students with English as their medium of schooling also have different exposure to the language depending on the quality of the school they go to and the kind of socio-economic culture they come from.

Thus, students from metro cities have better exposure to English language and consequently better English Language skills unlike their counterparts from other areas.

Comprehension misunderstand the problem

A comprehension based question involves two steps to reach the correct answer. The first is understanding what the question demands and the second being the application of logic to solve the question.

The first part (or the primary part) – understanding the question – could include understanding the factual scenario, understanding the requirement of the question etc. The candidates’ English proficiency play a very important role in crossing this primary hurdle.

It is only after the candidate has overcome the primary hurdle, he reaches a a situation where he could actually apply logic to solve the question.

Comprehension focussed questions are by their nature framed in a complex language to assess the students, inter alia, on their language skills. The candidates’ unfamiliarity (or a relatively lower exposure) with the language throws them off at the first level itself.

Even if they reach the second level, they are likely to take more time in crossing the primary hurdle. Notwithstanding the proposed reduction in the number of questions, CLAT still remains a time-bound test. The relative disadvantage of such ‘slowing down’ cannot be discounted despite the increased time for each question that everyone now has.

So English language skills assume the primary role in the proposed pattern where comprehension based question on different aspects will be asked throughout the paper.

Moving closer to English-speaking countries with this CLAT

In introducing more comprehension based questions, although we have moved closer to the model that the US and other English speaking countries follow (for instance, their law entrance tests like LSAT contain mostly comprehension based questions), we have ignored the differential access to English language education that is so prevalent in our country.

While using a globally accepted pattern is not a problem, a fact that we should not miss is that inequitable exposure to the language of the test is not a problem in other countries which use LSAT or similar exams. But in India, this is certainly a problem.

Having argued how English language skills will potentially play a spoilsport in upcoming CLATs, it is important to clarify that it is not my case that the earlier system did not suffer from this disadvantage.

However, what I have sought to show is that the problem of English becomes much more acute in an exam which completely focuses on comprehension based questions. While the exam setter’s intention behind several questions may be to test inferential reasoning (and inferential reasoning alone), candidates will invariably end up being tested on their English language skills.

Not the same as the Legal Aptitude section

It may be contended that candidates would have faced the same problems with the erstwhile Legal Aptitude Section, especially in the Legal Reasoning questions.

However, what this argument overlooks are firstly, the repetitiveness of the Legal Aptitude questions in CLAT and secondly, the limited scope of Legal Aptitude Section where terms can be (and are often) learnt in the course of preparation thus giving the candidates required exposure to the language component of the section and consequently creating a level playing field.

However, this is not to say that the Legal Aptitude section was a fine test of a candidate’s merit but rather to argue that the playing field is relatively uneven in the new pattern.

What is the aim?

Prof. Faizan Mustafa, the outgoing President of the consortium, has claimed that “the idea is to get better students to National Law Universities who have competence in reading texts and demonstrate skills in inferential reasoning”.

What this proclamation misses is that CLAT was never a test of a candidate’s skill, or at the very least was not supposed to be a test of skill. Nor was it a knowledge test (unlike the JEE and NEET).

CLAT is an aptitude test and thus what should matter is the candidate’s aptitude to learn the skills required to be a lawyer and not the existing skillset and knowledge -predominantly that of English language - of the candidate.

Therefore, in a diverse country like India, for admission to National Law Universities, English language skills should not form a significant evaluative criterion, and much less the primary criterion.

There are ways in which tests can be made culturally neutral.

While this seem like a destination any entrance examination in India will take years to reach, the single minded focus on comprehension based question should be avoided.

Instead, attempts should be made to test the aptitude of the candidate in as little convoluted language as possible, barring the specific English Language section.

If comprehension based question indeed end up dominating CLAT, it will no longer be the Common Law Aptitude Test but will become the Common Law Accessibility (to quality English-language education) Test.

I sincerely pray that this doesn’t happen.

Divya Kumar Garg is a fourth year student at NLSIU Bangalore. A former Student Public Interest Fellow at P-PIL (IDIA), he has worked with Prof Shamnad Basheer on his CLAT petition for two years. He has also helped CLAT aspirants in filing PILs against the conduct of CLAT 2018.

Picture by Irina Bruce.

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