Brigadier Rajbir Singh (Retd), a former Services Selection Board (SSB) Psychologist & Technical Officer spoke to Mission Victory India in part-4 of this ongoing interview series on SSB reforms.
The screening test's tragedy to manage numbers of candidates has been dealt with by the earlier interviewers in your programme in an impactful manner, and not much is left for me. I shall try only to fill the gaps. At the cost of being repetitive, I begin by narrating an incident when I worked in SSB at Allahabad. I was part of the screening team of a CDS group one morning in the year 2000. Forty candidates had reported, and seventeen of the lot were declared suitable for further testing.
It immediately came to the notice of the senior GTO of the board that the number required for testing of the group was eighteen since each of the three GTOs present at the time need at least six candidates in the respective batches. And one more out of the number ready to catch the bus to the railway station be retained.
The PIQs (Personal Information Questionnaires) of the departing twenty-three were given to me for finding one more candidate to make the ideal number eighteen. I found a boy who had an excellent academic record, was in the NCC and had listed quite some co-curricular activities in his school and college time. The GTO which had conducted the group discussion objected to my choice, saying that the boy did not speak a word in the group discussion.
I insisted, and the SSB retained the concerned candidate for further testing reluctantly. He was the only one found suitable for training on the last day after the conference. In the conference, he was asked about his non-participation in the group discussion at the screening time. The boy answered that everyone was shouting simultaneously, and he waited for the sound to subside to make his point. It never happened till the end, and he missed his chance of participation.
This incident speaks volumes about the efficacy and validity of the test. Some candidates come to discuss and not shout; others are slow starters and open up gradually but are deserving. Both these suffer. The number of such candidates is sadly reasonably large. As cruel as it is, the system has deprived thousands of a fair chance for a comprehensive assessment.
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Q1. In the SSB selection interview there is a screening test on the first day itself in which over 50% candidates are screen out and only the remaining candidates undergo the full SSB procedure. Can you explain the tests conducted during Screening and the tests conducted for full SSB?
Answer: The three tests are, an intelligence test to work out the OIR, an indicator of basic intelligence based on the standardised test. There are five grades of the intelligence, from OIR 1 to 5. OIR 1 is above average, whereas OIR 5 is poor intelligence. The second test is the story writing based on relatively not so clear or vague stimulus that each candidate reconstructs as per one’s own life experiences and predispositions.
After a psychologist has read the stories, the third test commences. In the last test, the candidates sit in a semi-circle in batches ranging from twelve to sixteen candidates each. The three assessors, an IO, a GTO, and a psychologist, sit in front of the group.
The GTO briefs the candidates to narrate their stories written in the test earlier to other participants. After stories have been narrated, he asks them to discuss the stories in the leaderless group format to come to a common group story in fifteen to twenty minutes. At the word go, each candidate starts shouting his or her story, which no one hears. It goes on until the GTO asks them to stop and terminates the discussion or the shouting match in reality.
Generally, no consensus is reached, but someone stands uninvited, claiming that he is narrating the group story. Others keep quiet, fearing that they may be labelled as disruptors. The assessors then get together to find the candidates for further testing. The only objective element is the intelligence test. The remaining two are subjective and arbitrary. The tests are the same for both UPSC and non-UPSC candidates.
Q2. Is the screening test fair and objective or subjective, opaque and unjust to the screened-out candidates?
Answer: The tests are unfair, as mentioned by several other participants as well. The intelligence test does provide some inkling of a candidate's abstract reasoning ability. These, as mentioned, are ‘culture free’ tests standardised by the psychologists in the west. Some questions related to language cannot be culture-free since these are created in the western world. All the same, this part is objective testing. The story is not the part of TAT.
It is simply a story that the candidates write in four minutes after answering some observational questions about the picture, like the number of persons seen, their ages and genders in the first one minute. The real test is of five minutes duration. No inferences of a person's psychological structure and functioning can be drawn by any assessor from one story. It is at least four to six stories written under time pressure that provide some initial clues about some one's persona.
This one story can only offer some information about observational skills and nothing else. In any case, all candidates come to the SSBs with ample practice of story writing from the coaching centres. The coached stories have little merit.
The primary test is the group discussion, where the three assessors can watch the candidates together. Everyone is aware that the GD or group discussion is an indicator of a person's intelligence, general knowledge, analytical skills, and ability to influence the participants with skilful presentation besides his or her ability to listen to others.
Even in proper GTO's testing, it is the main test conducted right in the beginning. Here, in the screening exercise, no discussion takes place. There is no reasoned presentation of ideas and no listening of others' views. It is an invalid exercise.
Q3. When and why was the screening test introduced in the SSBs?
Answer: The tests were introduced in the year 1998. The main reason was large numbers, particularly from the ‘c’ grade engineering colleges that had sprouted everywhere in the last century's nineties filling the SSBs. All the stakeholders felt that prima facie, these candidates showed little promise and could be rejected with a screening test.
One did not realise that the test, whatever is the merit, will be used to reduce the numbers arbitrarily. It was also not thought that the test would be ruthlessly used to throw away the candidates in just two hours who come after clearing rather steep UPSC exams for which they sometimes prepare for months.
Q4. In the present circumstances what is the alternative to the screening test to make it more objective, transparent, and fair to all the candidates?
Answer: SSBs earlier also screened non-UPSC candidates based on their performance in the Intelligence test. Anyone who was OIR 3 or of the average intelligence was retained for further testing. SSBs can and should introduce basic physical ability tests that apply to the recruitment of men in services.
Physical tests can provide more valuable clues to a person's mental health and dynamic qualities like stamina and determination. Intelligence test standards can be made more stringent. Mandatory physical tests should be applicable for UPSC passed candidates. Non-UPSC candidates must clear both Intelligence (OIR) and mandatory physical tests.
Q5. When for past 25 years the pre-commission training academies have been repeatedly taking up the imperative need to introduce the mandatory physical tests at SSBs to prevent physically weak candidates from joining the academies why are DIPR/SSBs resisting and preventing this introduction to materialise?
Furthermore, since the Army recruits undergo the basic physical tests during initial screening itself and all leading professional armies including US Army have this mandatory requirement do you think that this test should be introduced?
If yes, then in which part of the selection process should it be introduced? Will it help in making the selection or rejection process more objective, fair and transparent?
Answer: I do not have an answer to this lapse. The training academies cannot escape from this negligence. The academies suffer more than anyone else. Later the units where such officers are posted have to bear with leaders who do not match up to the standards of men they command. Maybe, respect for wisdom for DIPR and the SSBs stopped the academies from raising this vital issue forcefully.
Ideally, the physical ability tests are introduced in the SSBs as part of screening along with intelligence tests. The services Head Quarters can ideally set Physical standards for the candidates after consultation with the academies and the experts. This screening practice will be fair and transparent way, and no one can accuse arbitrariness and unfairness.
About the Interviewee
Brigadier Rajbir Singh, is a psychologist who has had extensive experience with the Indian Armed Forces Officer selection system. He was commissioned in the Army Educational Corps in June 1975 from the Indian Military Academy (IMA) and is a postgraduate in Psychology. The veteran has held a number of instructional appointments including one in the Army Cadet College (ACC).
He worked in all the three Service Selection Centers as Technical Officer and as a Psychologist. He retired from IMA where he was last posted as Head of Academic Department. He is presently working as a consultant in an organisation engaged in assessing the corporate managers.
(Views expressed are the interviewees own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)