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Helicopters, scanners no match for Egypt's exam cheats

With students becoming more defiant and social media savvy, the leaking of exam questions is becoming increasingly difficult to curb.
Students talk after finishing an exam in one of the Al-Azhar institutes in Cairo, Egypt, May 20, 2015. Picture taken May 20, 2015.    To match Special Report EGYPT-ISLAM/AZHAR    REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih  - RTR4Y753

CAIRO — High school exam seasons in Egypt are often accompanied by exam leaks — a phenomenon that has become a major challenge to the successive Egyptian governments, despite several attempts to confront it. The government transports exam questions in a military helicopter from the printers affiliated with the Ministry of Education, whose locations remain a secret. This procedure is done under the auspices of the Egyptian armed forces to prevent the leaking of the exams. Also, the Ministry of Education has started using electronic detectors to search the students for mobile phones to prevent the exam questions from being leaked on social media just minutes after the exam starts. The Ministry of Interior is working to secure students’ conduct during examinations, amid a phenomenon of mass cheating.

In the past, students have threatened to beat proctors, assault them, and, in 2014, exam proctors were held at gunpoint in the city of Asyut. Amid all of this, some people on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter continue to defy the Egyptian Ministry of Education.

In the first hours of exam day, and especially in high school exit exams, there is a public online outcry encouraging students to upload the exam questions onto Facebook and Twitter. Once the exam starts, the work starts on developing an answer sheet that allows everyone to easily pass the exam. There are also instructions and tips published on social media, using innovative ways to hide mobile phones used in the cheating process. Students involved justify their actions by claiming that the ministry’s exams are unreasonably difficult.

The Ministry of Education has so far been unable to control this phenomenon, despite its attempts to close many of the pages and accounts that leak exam questions, and despite establishing a special government group to fight fraudulence on Facebook by immediately reporting any pages that leak exam questions to close them and arrest their owners.

The current exam season in Cairo saw several leaked exams for Al-Azhar secondary school. On June 4, the questions for the English subject were leaked less than half an hour after the exam’s start. On June 1, material on the Quran, jurisprudence and mechanics was leaked by a number of students on Facebook and Twitter despite all the precautionary measures taken by Al-Azhar. Three students were expelled from Al-Azhar and their exams were canceled following their leaking of exam questions via social media using mobile phones. Evidence was provided by the police against them.

High school exit exams are the Egyptian students’ gateway into university, in the words of Kamal Mogheeth, an expert and researcher at the National Center for Educational Research. He told Al-Monitor that he did not expect the high school exam season to pass without the exam questions being leaked.

He added, “Those leaks negate the exams’ very purpose and violate the principle of ensuring fairness and equal opportunities for students.”

Students who are pros at leaking exams work to develop their performance every year. They recently released an application called “Shaw Ming,” which facilitates communication among students through linking their social media accounts, and sends the exam questions via a chat system. The application has five components: Twitter, LiveLeak, Facebook, Instagram and a private chat component.

The Facebook page “Shaw Ming Cheats in Secondary School” is considered the most popular Facebook page for leaking and circulating exam questions.

This page has unhinged the exam season in Egypt in 2014. After being used to leak several secondary school exams on subjects such as economics and foreign languages, and despite attempts by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to take down the page, the latter’s admin created more than four other pages with the same name to continue leaking exams.

Despite the precautions taken, the Ministry of Education has confirmed the leaking of the Arabic high school exit exam on June 7 through the same pages that surface every year around exam season.

As to what is behind the cheating phenomenon, Mogheeth said, “There is a flaw in the educational system, which relies on end-of-year exams. This tempts students to obtain [the questions] illegally because it means avoiding making a year’s worth of effort. Modern education systems, however, are based on grading students on the various subjects [more than once] throughout the academic year. Exam leaks and cheating will continue as long as the system remains as is — giving the student only one opportunity [to sit for a test]. Egyptian universities cannot accommodate all those [who graduate with] high school diplomas. This complicates matters further and makes the student worry about reserving a seat in any university and by any means, regardless of the [student’s] abilities and skills.”

Every year, the Supreme Council of Universities in Egypt determines the number of students who are offered admission to public and private universities according to the number of vacant places, not according to the number of students who pass pre-college education. This has led to a rise in university admission rates, especially to medicine, pharmacy and engineering. Every July, the Supreme Council of Universities convenes and decides on the number of students faculties in universities across the country can accommodate.

On the fact that the students attribute the cheating to the exams’ difficulty, Mogheeth said, “There must be [difficult] questions to gauge the students’ various levels. Requesting easy exam questions is a vacuous and meaningless [request].”

At the end of each scholastic year, the Egyptian government is hit with incidents of collective fraud in the form of exam leaks on social media, which seem to be inviting students to stand together for a better fraudulent system.

For his part, head of the Education Committee in the former Egyptian parliament Shaaban Abdel-Alim attributed the spread of mass cheating and exam leaks to the fact that some students are able to intimidate exam proctors.

He told Al-Monitor, “This is one of the negatives after the January 25 Revolution, which, although it was a revolution against injustice, resulted in [weaker control over the citizens] because of the lack of security for a while. … The phenomenon of leaking exams can be chalked up partly to psychological motives. But the most dangerous factor is the collapse of the education system in Egypt, which has been hit by backwardness.”

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