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Militias, bribes tip scales as Iraqis take final exams

Graduation tests for middle and high schools end Tuesday.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 2007


Ihab Thaer couldn't afford the bribes some of his friends at his central Baghdad high school paid for a preview of final exam questions. He wishes instead that he could have benefited from a different tip to the scale: a visit by militias to force proctors to let him cheat.

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Over the past two weeks, Iraq has seen an unprecedented level of interference by militias and insurgents as students have taken national exams for middle and high school diplomas. Cheating and bribing have also marred the process – as have threats by parents to uncooperative teachers.

Iraq's schools and universities were once the pride of the Arab world. But one expert says that what has happened inside exam halls, along with the plummeting standards of the education system, are further symptoms of the systematic unraveling of Iraqi society and its institutions.

"There is real terror going on at some of these exams," says Asma Jamil, a sociologist at Baghdad University, adding that students feel that Iraq's instability gives them the right to cheat, while armed groups want to win the sympathy of the public.

"It's a result of greater social decay," she says, "and it feeds it by graduating a generation of aggressive, sometimes extremist, students who have very little capability for critical thinking."

The Ministry of Education recently solicited solutions to the problem from her and other experts, she says, but that there has been little follow-up. "We are witnessing," she says, "the complete collapse of the education system."

Education Minister Khudayer al-Khuzaie says that all the talk of violations at exam centers were rumors and part of a smear campaign. "This is all part of a scheme to undermine the political process in general and the ministry in particular," Mr. Khuzaie said in an interview, in reference to efforts by some Sunni parties to bring down the Shiite-led government. He says that the ministry is investigating the reports and that he is prepared to offer rewards for proof of cheating.

According to Ms. Jamil, the 1970s and '80s saw great strides that set Iraq apart in the region. Public education and mandatory elementary schooling were enshrined in the constitution, and a literacy drive in the '70s was highly effective in building on gains made in the previous three decades, particularly among girls.

The system started declining in the 1990s after the first Gulf War, when economic sanctions and poverty prompted some officials to sell exam questions or award fictitious degrees.

This year, violence and curfews in parts of the city have meant that students only attended three months out of the seven-month school year. Academics and students have been regularly targeted, prompting the exodus of some of Iraq's most qualified teachers. Just last week, Nuhad al-Rawi, the assistant dean of Baghdad University, was gunned down in Baiyaa, a particularly violent section of the city.

"Efforts to preserve Iraqi children's fragile educational progress are fundamental to help children survive the crisis," said the UN mission in Iraq in a May report that painted a rather bleak picture of education in Iraq.

Outside his school, Mr. Thaer, a thin teen with a goatee, stands with his companions against the outer wall. The school, founded in 1949, used to be called Al-Orfan (Knowledge) but, like many others, was renamed after a revered Shiite cleric to reflect the taste of the new ruling Islamist Shiite elite.