Why is China using drones to catch college exam cheaters?

One Chinese city has deployed a drone to detect cheaters during the 'gaokao,' the country’s crucial college entrance exams.

Ng Han Guan/AP Photo
A security guard use a metal detector to check students arriving for the annual Gao Kao or national college entrance exam held at a school in Beijing, Sunday, June 7, 2015. More than nine million students across China will compete in the two-day exams for around seven million seats in the nation's colleges.

A six-propeller drone is out on the hunt in China – but its target isn’t terrorists.

Instead, the device has been deployed to detect cheaters in the country’s critical national college entrance exams, or the “gaokao,” which began over the weekend, multiple news outlets have reported.

The tests, a grueling multi-day affair held at the start of every summer for graduation-age students, are the only measure that most colleges and universities in China use to determine admittance. “Failure,” as CNN put it, could mean “no degree, poorer job prospects and possibly a life of regret” — a prospect that has led students to come up with increasingly imaginative, high-tech methods of cheating that Chinese education authorities have been fighting to curb.

More than 9 million students take the test annually, and thousands are caught cheating every year, according to The New York Times.

“Despite existing preventive measures, cheating on the gaokao occurs time and time again,” Xinhuanet, an online arm of China’s state news agency, reported last week. “In some cases, teachers and students conspire to hire experienced people to sit the tests or use devices to achieve high scores.”

In 2009, the Times reported:

One group of parents last year outfitted their children with tiny earpieces, persuaded a teacher to fax them the questions and then transmitted the answers by cellphone. Another father equipped a student with a miniscanner and had nine teachers on standby to provide the answers. In all, 2,645 cheaters were caught [in 2008]. 

Students have also used special pens that take photos of test questions and transmit them to someone who provides the answers via earphone, according to The Washington Post.

In response, authorities in Luoyang, a city in central China, this year deployed an anti-cheating drone, which is about the size of a gas station pump and cost tens of thousands of dollars. The drone can reportedly identify radio signals emitted by smuggled cheating devices, according to the Associated Press.

“A drone has its advantages,” Lan Zhigang, from Luoyang's Radio Supervision and Regulation Bureau, told the wire service. “In an urban area full of tall buildings, various barriers limit the operating range of devices on ground, while the drone can rise up to 500 meters [1,640 feet] and detect signals over the whole city.”

Critics, however, have noted that the country’s cheating problem stems in large part from the gaokao’s excessive role in determining a student’s future, and the resulting pressure the exams place on students and parents.

Indeed, preparations for the gaokao are so intense that students hook themselves up to oxygen canisters and intravenous drips during study marathons, The New York Times reported. Parents hire special tutors and send their children to education boot camps.

During the tests themselves, flights are rerouted so that they don’t disturb examinees with their noise, according to the Times. Honking is banned, construction sites are silenced, and roads to exam venues are blocked off by police.

“The whole country is in on it,” correspondent Mark McDonald wrote for the Times.

Beijing has attempted to address the issue, last year announcing a set of reforms aimed at bringing transparency to and improving the quality of the gaokao, Caixin online reported.

Still, critics remained skeptical, noting that little will change unless the reforms grant colleges the freedom to evaluate their own applicants instead of relying on the national exams.

“The real problem is that the government is still hesitant to give up its power over the education system, from school operations to exams and enrollment,” Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, told Caixin.

“If colleges can't establish their own applicant evaluation system based on their needs, in which student's high school credits, graduation exam scores and enrollment interview performance are all taken into consideration, the goodwill of the current reform plans will not matter,” he added.

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