Fewer gunmen and bribes as Iraqi students take finals
Authorities boosted security after last year's tests were marred by widespread lawlessness and mass cheating.
A group of anxious-looking Iraqi mothers huddled behind concrete barriers and concertina wire in the shadow of two Iraqi police pickup trucks. In the distance, US military vehicles could be seen patrolling the neighborhood.Skip to next paragraph
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One mother shut her eyes and started muttering prayers while clasping a string of worry beads between her hands.
This was the scene Monday outside a school in Baghdad's Baiyaa neighborhood, where hundreds of Iraqi teenage girls took a chemistry exam as part of the standardized national exams for high school diplomas held this time each year. The exams, which started on June 26, will end on Wednesday.
Last year's tests were marred by unprecedented incidents of mass cheating, bribe-taking, and sheer lawlessness. In many places, militiamen and insurgents strolled casually into exam centers and forced officials, often at gunpoint, to allow cheating. But this year, aided by the fact that most Baghdad neighborhoods have been turned into walled compounds protected by US and Iraqi troops, authorities took often draconian measures to avoid a repetition of such scenes.
"Last year, the outlaws took advantage of the brittle security situation and caused unprecedented chaos during the final exams. It was truly a mark of utter shame on our education system as a whole," says Ibrahim Abdul-Zahra, a proctor overseeing a geography high school exam at Baghdad University Monday.
"But this year it's a different story," he adds. "We want the government to take the same measures each year until the security situation improves."
Mr. Abdul-Zahra says that he had to evict only three students caught cheating and contend with one of them telling him, "I am going to kill you," before being dragged out by security guards.
In the 1970s and '80s, Iraq's public and higher-education systems were the pride of the Arab world. The impact of international sanctions in the 1990s ushered in a period of decline that was worsened by the disruption and sectarian conflict that followed the US-led invasion in 2003.
In addition to an exodus by Iraq's best and brightest since then, violence has also taken its toll on the system. The Ministry of Human Rights reported at the end of June that 340 academics were killed around Iraq from 2005-2007.
According to the Ministry of Education, 28 percent of Iraq's 17-year-olds in the center and south of the country took their final exams in 2007. Only 40 percent passed, a decrease from 2006, when the figure was 60 percent.
This year, the Ministry of Education turned several schools around Baghdad into secured exam centers for girls. Boys, considered the worst offenders last year, were forced to take exams at colleges and universities, which already enjoy high levels of protection by Iraqi security forces. This means everyone has had to commute to these locations from all over the city. Everyone has been thoroughly searched before entering the exam hall.
Anxious to show their control, Iraqi officials flanked by machine-gun-wielding guards and accompanied by local TV crews visited several centers during exam sessions over the past two weeks.