Exam arms race

By Jiang Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2014-5-26 19:28:02

Staff members from the admissions department in Jilin Province use an electronic monitoring system to observe all the exam sites in the province. Photo: CFP

No matter how many mock exam papers Lin Yue takes, the 17-year-old high school student in Beijing still gets butterflies in her stomach when she thinks about the upcoming national college entrance examination, or gaokao, this June.

"I know I should relax, but the idea of ending up at a bad university kills me every time I just imagine it," Lin told the Global Times.

The gaokao is a nerve-wracking time for both candidates and their families. In Beijing alone, 70,500 students have registered for this year's gaokao while over 750,000 have already signed up for the exam in South China's Guangdong Province.

With so much at stake, some students are tempted to cheat, especially since invigilation is not strong enough in many school and university exams in China. Despite tough measures, the temptation persists. "I've seen some of my classmates try to cheat in either small tests or major exams at the school or district level. But at least I do not dare to cheat in the gaokao. The potential loss would far outweigh any possible gain," Lin said.

Education experts pointed out that cheating may not die down in spite of the crackdown from educational authorities, as the gaokao is still a major determinant of who gets into top colleges.

Annual crackdown 

The Ministry of Education announced on May 12 it would crack down on the sale of devices that can be used for cheating, and said it would check apartments and rental houses near schools for any suspected cheating rings. Teams will also work to prevent information being disclosed online.

Thirty-one  provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions have vowed "zero tolerance" on cheating in the upcoming gaokao. A local police station in Meihekou, North China's Jilin Province detected three people suspected of being part of a cheating ring, who rented an apartment near the test site, according to a May 16 post on the official microblog of Meihekou authorities.

Jilin Province won praise in 2013 for its strict security checks that ban any goods containing metal, and for preventing wireless devices from being used to cheat.

The policy was named "silent gaokao," since students were barred from bringing anything that could make the metal detector beep, including clothing. Students were asked to wear sports bras without metal clasps, pants with elastic waistbands instead of zippers, and shoes without metal eyelets. Those who had metal substances implanted in their body, such as pacemakers, were required to hand in certificates issued by appointed hospitals.

Q division

Zhang Jidong, a high school history teacher from Changde, Central China's Hunan Province, remembered learning how stunningly delicate modern cheating devices can be during his training as a supervisor of gaokao.

"Take one device. On the outside, it is just a water bottle. But students can actually read the answers reflected from the bottom of the bottle where a screen is implanted," Zhang said, adding that cheaters may also use mini earphones to receive the answers.

Those earphones are usually the size of soybeans or even smaller. Put inside students' ears, they need to be taken out by using an ear picker or magnet. As "classic" as they are, mini earphones have also led to several students seeking help from doctors to remove the devices since 2006.

Other high-tech devices include "bone-phones" which can transfer answers by creating vibrations in the head cavity, audible to the wearer only. Chips for receiving answers can also be hidden in devices disguised as other objects, while specially-designed glasses can transfer photos of exam papers and answers, according to a blog on PConline, a Chinese information portal for IT-related products and services.

The blog also warned that many cheating devices may not be detected since the frequencies of cheating devices avoid those used by detectors.

"Students can get the answer very quickly through radio communication. They may not need to write anything at first and just copy all answers from their device before the exam ends," an anonymous employee with the Chengdu-based Jiafa'antai Technology Company told National Business Daily.

The company, which specializes in anti-cheating devices, has curbed some cheaters with short-wave band signal detection, said the employee, but these traditional products are challenged by new countermeasures by cheaters.

"This is just like a live spy movie. We happened to meet a cheating ring once when we were at a school to do tests for signals. They were also detecting the signal while disguised as teachers," the employee noted.

Reform needed

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said that cheaters are inevitable as the root problem is the vested interests of local authorities and the exam system that needs to be reformed.

"Student admission quotas are different from region to region. Obviously, if students get higher exam scores, local authorities get more to show off as achievement. This is why some education officials may actively participate in cheating."

Beyond students and officials, teachers are also involved, according to an unnamed high school teacher from Hunan Province. "We secretly hope our students can cheat in the exam so that we can meet our teaching requirements. If they fail, we face criticism at best. Worse, teachers could be transferred to a lower grade. I heard that some teachers even teach students to cheat. Our conscience has been twisted by the teacher evaluation system," he told the Global Times.

Zhang added that parents' high expectations and tendency to compare children's scores have also pushed students to cheat.

"A high gaokao score basically guarantees a diploma from a prestigious university. On the one hand, there is no strict requirement for university graduations; on the other, students do not need to present further materials for university application, such as interviews or high school academic transcripts," Xiong noted.
Newspaper headline: Gaokao frenzy sparks raft of cheating devices

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