Friday, April 14, 2006

Buying Scholarship

My daughter recently sat for her SAT exams in Hong Kong, at a venue that was attended by about 50% mainland Chinese.

Shortly after the exam takers had all entered the hall, the invigilator made an announcement that Mainland Chinese students who were attending the exam in Hong Kong need to make sure that they indicate this on their college applications. It seems that US schools are now discounting Mainland Chinese SAT scores, because cheating is so rampant.

As a university professor, I make a fundamental assumption about reported grades and SATs for students who apply to our programs: that these numbers are accurate (after all, who has time to run down a bunch of cheats). But over the past seven years, we have received two messages from ETS to ignore SAT exam results from a particular sitting because (apparently) cheating on those exams was even worse than normal.

I have at these times asked my own students from the Mainland (about half of our students are from PRC) how difficult it is to cheat, and they all have the same reply: "no problem." No ETS exam apparently makes it into the country without the examiners taking copies and selling thim to obsessive parents (apparently not for that much money either).

Examinations have always been important in China. They determined who or who would not be able to hold a comfortable lifetime sinecure in the Chinese bureaucracy. Thus the idea that it might be easier to buy scholarship than to earn it has ancient roots in China.

The great Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor Kang Xi was clearly frustrated by the education examination system in China when he wrote:
Even among examiners there are those who are corrupt, those who do not understand basic works ... As to the candidates, not only are there few in the Harlin Academy who can write a proper eulogy, there are many whose calligraphy is bad and who can't punctuate the basic history books. When I had the Chinese Bannermen who'd bought their ranks given, a special examination, many either brought in books to copy, or hand in blank sheets. Other candidates hire people to sit the exams for them, or else pretend to be from apiovince that has a more liberal quota than their own.

Kang Xi may have passed from this earth, but his frustrations are alive and kicking today. China boasts an exam system with more than 2,000 years of history, arguably the world's oldest continuous systematised programme of National examinations. Today, it is also arguably the world's most debauched.

But fear not, for the Ministry of Education is working on a draft law on examinations. This has come about partly because of the centralised nature of China's higher education system. In short, universities do not have individual exams, developed by their professors, for each course. Instead national exams are applied uniformly in each subject. One's professional status, from the rank of professor to assistant translator, is determined very precisely under the national exam system.

This is just great. The lack of exam individuality makes cheating on a national-scale not only possible but a very saleable business model. Cheating has been made an industry in itself.

Last year the lid was lifted following the raid on the innovatively named Hired Gun Group, established by a 23 year-old graduate. It provided online services ranging from answers to national exam papers to “hired guns”, that is, people who would sit the exams for students. The website assured that the activities were legal, due to "friends within the Public Security Bureau", and it "guaranteed a 95 per cent success rate". The group took 1.7 million yuan (a bit over $200,000) duping 990 students in 19 provinces and 200 cities.

The National Auditing Bureau has been investigating and found that local governments and educational institutions have also run their own rackets. Since 1989, local governments have pocketed 224 million yuan in cheating scams for fourth- to sixth-grade English exams alone. Who knows about the rest?

Even in the capital, the problem is rampant Of the 107 students caught last year cheating during exams, about half were "hired guns". One examiner at Beijing's Agricultural University was so determined to stop the practice that he invited police officers to check the identity cards of every student sitting his exam. To his relief and surprise, they did not uncover one single "hired gun". Only later was it discovered that every student had been an impostor, and because everyone had used fake personal ID cards that day, the police thought they were all real.

Professional exam-takers advertise their services on websites and even on university noticeboards. The going rate averages 1,500 yuan per exam, with 500 yuan going to the company that makes the deal and the rest to the impostor. For exams required to enter American universities, the rates are closer to 10,000 yuan for each exam, making it a profitable career.

Tianjin, known for its hi-tech zones, apparently produces a 6mm device which, when fitted into a student's ear, can connect him or her to a mobile-phone signal. Answers can be read out, so the exam impostors may soon become extinct.

If Kang Xi could only see the situation today, he might be disappointed, but certainly not surprised. Perhaps this is something to think about next time you hear someone extolling the brainpower of the Peoples Republic of China. Yes, there are a lot of smart people in China; but exam scores and degrees don't tell the whole story here.

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