Published: Sunday September 28, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday September 28, 2014 MYT 11:21:12 AM

Justifying UPSR leaks?

Are there any acceptable reasons to cheat in exams?

WHEN I was 16, I was set an interesting question by my maths teacher about magic squares. It was also suspiciously similar to a question I saw a few months later on an official additional mathematics examination I was sitting for.

I don’t know whether my teacher first set us the question and then later submitted it to the exam board, or vice versa. But as far as I know there were no accusations that the paper had “leaked” and had to be retaken.

This obviously has not been the case with the UPSR papers which has been a scandal of national proportions. So far, a total of four papers have been reported as leaked. A commission has been set up to investigate. However, one question still bugs me: Why would anybody cheat for an exam for 12-year olds?

On the surface, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. Regardless of results, all students will get promoted to secondary school, and there are no scholarships up for offer. It may be that parents are trying to get their children into exclusive secondary schools, but the vast majority of those brought in for questioning are teachers. And as of this moment, monetary profit has been dismissed as a motive for the leaks.

A similar scandal happened recently in the United States. Over the course of six years, nearly 200 teachers in schools in a district of Atlanta, Georgia, had allegedly conspired to cheat in exams.

Some of the schools involved were on the verge of being closed down because they were not meeting standards. However, after a few years the city district of poor and inner city children began to outperform those in wealthier suburban areas. The district superintendent was held up as an example to all of what could be achieved, and teachers and staff received monetary bonuses.

However, as the improvements continued unabated from year to year, suspicions were aroused. Investigators began examining answer sheets and it was discovered that teachers were gathering in secret during key state exams, opening the student answers sheets that were submitted, and correcting enough of the wrong answers to shift them up a grade.

In 2011, the authorities acted. In an operation reminiscent of those used to catch members of the Mafia, teachers were interrogated, and made to wear a hidden wire so investigators could eavesdrop on other teachers. After more than two thousand interviews, the investigators concluded that more than 44 schools had cheated, including 178 educators.

Those accused find themselves at risk of criminal prosecution, but the motives that led them there are all too human. The teachers were not worried because their jobs were at risk, but because the lives of their students were.

Some of those complicit said that the schools were safe havens for the inner-city students, as opposed to having them hang out on street corners – even if they were technically academic dropouts.

Added to that was the suspicion that the passing grades the students received while in junior school were themselves manipulated, lending the idea that not cheating would mean you would fall behind.

The parallels to Malaysia are obvious. Schools have KPIs to achieve, and students from poorer families don’t have the advantage of abundant resources at home nor the benefits of private tuition. And if students in other schools are cheating, it puts your students at a disadvantage. A teacher who cares for his students may believe that he is just helping them survive in an unfair world.

The problems of doing this of course are long-term. Students who excel in the exams may find the next level up harder than expected.

If this happens on a systemic basis, there is grade inflation and students are labelled as being better than they really are.

Then, students accepted into local universities may not be able to cope on their own and have to be spoon-fed information all the way up to graduation. This results in graduates who are, theoretically, ready for the workforce. But employers feel they lack communication skills, have a poor attitude, and ask for unreasonable salaries (as highlighted in a 2013 survey by a local recruitment agency).

Is there a solution? An obvious one would be to do away with a single exam, and to instead combine it with on-going coursework. Another solution would be to redesign the exams so that the questions can be given in advance in the first place (this is not as strange as it seems; consider that to get a driving license in Malaysia, you take both a theoretical and practical exam where all the questions and tasks are known before hand).

But perhaps the biggest problem is when exams test memorisation rather than skill, so there is benefit to knowing what to not bother studying. At least, I felt that in the “leaked” question I answered as a 16 -year old, I only had the confidence that I had done it once before. I didn’t know it would come up again, so I had to work it out from scratch.

The reason why it stuck in my mind was because I thought it was such an interesting question in the first place. You had to think to solve it, and not just repeat a process you had memorised ad nauseum.

If I had to resit a test full of questions like that, it would actually have been something to look forward to.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s contradictions.

Tags / Keywords: Exam, Cheating, Corruption, UPSR, examinations

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