67 perfect scorers, grace marks, ‘paper leak’: All about the NEET results controversy

Allegations against the NEET 2024 exam have spiralled since its results were declared on June 4.

WrittenBy:Rohan Bir Singh
Students outside an examination centre alongside a doctor's stethoscope.

India’s key examination for admission in medical colleges, NEET-UG, is embroiled in controversy once again – this time for purported paper leak, “inflated marks”, and alleged irregularities in its results.    

The recent controversy erupted after the NEET 2024 results were announced on June 4, in which 67 candidates scored a perfect 720 out of 720, and two got 719 and 718 – statistically “impossible” marks – prompting students to raise concerns about discrepancies in the evaluation process. The number of students who scored over 700 has increased from 304 last year to 2,100 this year. 

The National Testing Agency, which conducted the exam, has defended itself, saying that “grace marks” were given to over 1,500 students in six centres due to “loss of exam time”. About 2.4 million candidates had reportedly answered the examination across 4,750 centres for 1,08,940 MBBS seats. Now, many have filed petitions challenging the NEET results, and the education ministry has formed a four-member panel to probe the matter, while Congress and other opposition parties are demanding a Supreme Court monitored probe into the alleged scam. 

What are the allegations against NEET-UG? 

The first major allegation against NEET-UG after the declaration of the results were claims of a paper leak. Many students took to social media, alleging that the NEET-UG 2024 question paper had been leaked – leading to high scores secured by candidates – and demanding an investigation. 

The reports of malpractices at examination centres in Gujarat and Bihar further fuelled the controversy. In Gujarat, police arrested a physics teacher, who was also an exam centre official, and two others for allegedly helping candidates solve the question paper in exchange for Rs 10 lakh. Similar arrests were made in Bihar, where the police detained 13 people, including examinees and their family members, for involvement in a question paper leak racket. The Bihar police's economic offences unit is currently investigating the matter​. 

Adding to the controversy, several candidates and parents reported discrepancies between the OMR sheets and the results. Many students claimed that their scores on the OMR sheets were significantly higher than those reflected in the official results. For instance, students who believed they had scored over 600 marks based on their OMR sheets found that their final scores were drastically lower, sometimes by several hundred marks. These discrepancies have led to allegations of “rigging” and “OMR fraud”, with many taking to social media to demand clarification from the NTA. The agency has yet to provide a detailed response to these claims​.

What is the basis of score manipulation allegations?

Perhaps the most serious allegation against the NEET-UG is score manipulation. Among the top scorers this year, eight students are from a single centre in Haryana. Meanwhile, two candidates scored 719 and 718, respectively, which is statistically not possible as each question carries four marks and a negative mark for a wrong attempt. The NTA has not given a detailed clarification about these discrepancies so far. However, it has attributed the odd scores to “grace marks” given to candidates because of lost time during the examination due to various reasons. 

What is National Testing Agency saying?

The NTA was quick to refute the claims, and said the paper leak allegations are "completely baseless and without any grounds.” It emphasised that stringent security protocols and standard operating procedures were in place to “ensure the integrity of the exam” and conduct it in a “fair and transparent manner”. 

The exam body also said that each question paper is accounted for, and no external entity can access the examination centres once the exam begins.​ In an official statement, it asserted that it has rigorous security measures in place to prevent cheating. 

On the concerns about technical glitches, the NTA said some students faced issues but maintained that these were isolated incidents. The government body under the education ministry also assured that the affected candidates would be given a fair chance and that their scores would be reviewed if necessary.

In response to the discrepancies in the answer keys, the NTA opened a window for students to challenge the provisional keys and promised to review all the challenges and correct any errors. It also clarified that the images of a question paper circulating on social media had no connection with the actual paper. 

It said the increased count of high scorers was because of a larger candidate pool and changes in the NCERT textbooks. The odd marks, meanwhile, were because of “grace marks” for lost examination time, said the exam body. However, it has not yet been clarified about the adopted methodology for granting such marks and the exact number of students who received them.

What are past allegations against NEET-UG?

The examination, notably, has been under fire since its inception in 2013, when several state governments argued that it infringed upon their rights to conduct admissions and violated the principles of federalism. In the same year, the Supreme Court scrapped the examination, calling it unconstitutional. But the top court restored it three years later, saying the decision was taken in haste. 

Subsequently, several candidates reported “technical issues” during the examination over problems with the optical mark recognition, or OMR sheets, widely used for scoring across the globe, including the US, the UK and China. 

In 2022, the CBI arrested eight people in Rajasthan on suspicion of impersonation, leading to an outcry among students for a retake of the examination. 

Will recent controversies affect NEET-UG’s credibility?

The NEET-UG controversy has far-reaching implications for the Indian education system, as it has raised questions about systemic issues and sparked a broader debate about transparency in competitive examinations. Several candidates have filed petitions in the Supreme Court, demanding a thorough investigation into the alleged malpractices. Some have even called for the examination to be conducted again.

The controversy has dented the students’ trust in the NEET-UG and, by extension, in the NTA. For an examination that determines the future of so many young aspirants, any loss of credibility can have severe consequences. Restoring this trust will require transparency and accountability from the authorities.

It also points to the need for reform in the examination process, including enhancing security measures to prevent leaks, improving technical infrastructure to avoid glitches, and ensuring a robust system for handling discrepancies in answer keys and scores. The crisis has also underlined the role of technology, which enhances efficiency and accuracy, but also introduces new vulnerabilities. 

This also has consequences for the mental health of the aspirants of this highly competitive exam. The controversy has exacerbated their stress, leading to anxiety and uncertainty among students. As authorities navigate this crisis, their actions will set a precedent for how such issues are handled in the future, shaping the landscape of competitive examinations in India.

The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard Medical School.

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