High-tech cheating in Asia's high-stakes exams

Passing notes in the exam room? It's so passé.

Try this instead: sew a tiny microphone and speaker inside a shirt cuff, activate on a concealed cellphone, and get your buddy outside to scan the textbook for answers. It worked this year for two first-year medical students in Lucknow, India - until a supervisor spotted them in action.

Or why not sit out the test altogether? In China, professional exam-takers known as "hired guns" handle the bothersome task of actually turning up to take a test. For a fee, an agency will send a look-alike to the exam room, with the promise of a 95 percent success rate for university entrance tests.

As stressed students across Asia sweat through do-or-die exams for coveted college spots, educators are struggling with a surge in high-tech cheats. Pressure to get into good schools is heightened by the belief that only the best will succeed in a tough job market.

Rapid economic growth in countries like China and India has only added to the pressure from parents and peers. By some estimates, barely 1 percent of hundreds of thousands of Indian applicants seeking college spots this year will land a place.

"There's too much pressure on students these days. Competition is cutthroat," says R.K. Mahapatra, founder of www.studentindia.com, an education portal. "Desperation to succeed drives the urge to cheat."

In China, authorities this week took the drastic step of scrambling cellphone signals at test centers where millions of students were sequestered for two-day college-entrance exams. Test-takers were required to sign honesty pledges and were warned against buying answers online in advance or signing up for cellphone message services.

India's Lucknow University, which has long been plagued by cheats, resorted last year to installing CCTV to watch students during the April exam period. "But that proved to be ineffective in closely monitoring the students," says R.P. Singh, the university's vice chancellor. "And it wasn't well received within the student community, who found the move derogatory."

In Vietnam, crib sheets in eye-straining fonts called "life buoys" are sold at tea shops before entrance tests, designed to be consulted discreetly in the exam room. Thailand is getting wise to high-tech sneaks: last year, 46 men were caught with cellphones taped to their body or hidden in underwear at a military academy entrance exam in Bangkok, Thailand.

Gadget-savvy Japan has long enforced a ban on cellphones and other electronic devices in exam centers. Most universities disqualify without warning any students whose phones ring during a test. Baseball caps are also forbidden to stop students from writing cribs inside.

The consequences of getting caught can be severe. China's Education Ministry says some 1,700 students spotted cheating on last year's exam won't be allowed to sit for the test again. Last year, South Korea jailed members of criminal gangs who infiltrated the national college entrance test and sent answers by cellphone to exam-takers. Hundreds of scores were invalidated.

But, morality pledges notwithstanding, the shame attached to cheating doesn't always stick. In the ultracompetitive environment of Asian education, the ends can be seen to justify the means.

Just ask Ashish, a telecommunications graduate from India's Pune University. He was caught cheating on his final-year exam - he diagrammed an elaborate electronic circuit on the underside of his calculator - and kicked out. But hereturned and passedthe next term, and freely admits to cheating on most tests at university.

"Cheating sounds too grave," he says, insisting that his family name not be printed. "Everyone does it." He has written formulas on his ruler and smuggled notes up his sleeves and inside his shoes. Women have it easier, he claims, as modesty affords protection. "If I were a woman, I'd try smuggling them in my bra," he says.

Ashish's mother takes a dim view of his cheating, which she blames on the new emphasis by Indian youths on instant gratification. "I though I had taught him that the only way to succeed in life was through hard work," she says. "They [young people] want too many things, and instantly, without struggling for them."

India's educators share the blame for rampant fraud, as exam questions are often leaked beforehand by insiders. In 2003, a standardized entrance exam for six elite management schools was cancelled after scalpers were arrested with the question paper. Students had reportedly agreed to pay up to $10,000 per question sheet until the scandal broke.

Driving up the price is the desperation to get into these schools, and the knowledge that, in the case of India's management schools, 130 students are competing for each spot. In China, the numbers also pile on the pressure. This week, some 9.5 million highschoolers are sitting for national exams for 2.6 million college spots. That's up from 7 million in 2003, the result of a demographic bulge.

China's tertiary student population has ballooned over the past decade to 16 million. But as incomes and expectations rise, so do the numbers of wannabe freshmen. Parents and teachers drive home the message that the college entrance exam is the key to future career success. Only those who score in the top percentiles have a chance of admission to top schools, while those who flunk will need to repeat the grade to retake the test.

An online student bulletin board in Beijing summed up the mood. "These two days decide our life, just like a judgment," bewailed one poster.

Reinforcing this searingly competitive environment is Asia's traditional emphasis on standardized testing and rote learning, rather than personal skills and potential. China has relied on a centralized Confucian system to cherry-pick the good and the great for thousands of years, and the enterprising dropout made good (Bill Gates, anyone?) isn't a role model that many parents would recognize. While schools like Harvard or Oxford may draw on interviews and written aptitude to find the best applicants, there's little appetite in Asia for shifting away from a centralized test. So the pressure cooker of an all-or-nothing exam isn't going away.

Even in Japan, where the demographic trend favors college applicants, the heat is still on to get into elite schools. Only 9 percent of applicants to the law school at Tokyo's private Waseda University, for example, made the grade this year.

But elsewhere, Japanese universities are falling over themselves to attract students. In 2004, the proportion of applicants accepted on four-year and two-year college programs was 85 percent; by 2007, it will be 100 percent.

Behind this equalization is an aging population: the number of 18-year-olds peaked in 1992 at just over 2 million and has since fallen to 1.37 million. Universities are struggling to fill classes and several have filed for bankruptcy.

"Many schools are at their limit in terms of both financial and educational viability.... They have to emphasize their uniqueness, and develop strategies to differentiate themselves in order to survive," says Hiroyuki Nitto, an education industry consultant at Nomura Research Institute.

One survival strategy for Japanese schools is to tap into overseas demand. Two universities in Osaka have launched a business program focused on China that will link to Chinese universities. Others are switching to English-language degree courses and tapping students from Singapore and other parts of Asia.

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