CHEATING THE SYSTEM

Published August 28, 2022
Illustration by Areeshah Qureshi
Illustration by Areeshah Qureshi

During the exam season this summer, the news reports of cheating coming from the Board of Secondary Education Karachi (BSEK) resembled those of police raids on drug smuggling in Pakistan. Within just two days, May 21 and May 22 alone, the BSEK had caught some 100 students cheating during the annual Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examinations being held in the city. Eighteen people were discovered taking the exams in place of the real candidates. Later, on the fourth day, more than 400 mobile phones were confiscated in an examination centre.

Similar cases of cheating were reported in Hyderabad, Sukkur, Larkana and Shaheed Benazirabad by Sindh’s minister of universities and boards. The provincial government has announced it will slap a major penalty on the students for cheating in exams, and against the teachers who are found facilitating it.

Yet, much like drug busts, the practice of cheating in board exams across Pakistan is not news anymore for us. We seem to matter-of-factly accept this corrupt practice carried out by students and teachers alike. Like previous iterations of large-scale public exams of secondary and higher secondary level, the recently concluded Matric and Intermediate exams, across all provinces in Pakistan, continued the tradition of rampant cheating, professional disinterest and moral disregard.

Education is an essential means to transform lives, societies and economies. It spurs human development and collective socio-economic progress. This, in turn, translates into general emphasis on enrolment, attendance, test scores and other measurable indicators. While these measures indicate an input of societal effort for education, they unfortunately also take the focus away from a holistic understanding of the process of education and its ideal outcome. Noticeable educational outputs — such as percentages, grades, degrees, certificates — enable access to life opportunities, but without systems of meritocracy in place, these outputs are only reduced to being essential checklist items. The end, therefore, justifies all means to complete this checklist, even if it makes one cheat education itself.

Cheating in exams is not the problem. It is rather a striking symptom of a more pressing issue, which is systemic, societal, ethical and psychological in nature. It is imperative that, for the sake of our collective good, we scrutinise our indifference towards the entire cheating expedition that begins with exam schedules and concludes with the announcement of results.

Cheating in board examinations is rampant across Pakistan and it is not just limited among students. A unique social support system enables the process of cheating, which includes officeholders and administration of the various assessment boards, teachers and exam invigilators. How can Pakistan's education governance be re-oriented to check this ethical malpractice?

The Examination Bodies

Pakistan has around 31 matric and intermediate, or their religious equivalent examination boards across the country, among which two — Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKUEB) and Ziauddin University Examination Board (ZUEB) — are private; four are religious, namely Madrassa Education Board, Tanzeem-ul-Madaris Ahl-e-Sunnat, Wafaq ul Madaris Al-Arabia, Wafaq ul-Madaaris al-Shia; and two are international examination bodies, that are Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE) and International Baccalaureate (IB) Examining Board for the Diploma Programme (DP). Apart from the Federal Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education, there are almost eight provincial public examination boards in Punjab, seven each in Sindh and KP each, one in Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir each. These examination bodies administer annual exams through their network of assessment centres and appointed administrative staff.

System of Educational Dishonesty

The examination bodies are considered essential for the provision of quality education. The discourse around quality and learning cannot ignore the role of the examination boards. Our education system, particularly public education, already fails almost 70 percent of the students, who drop out by the time they reach Grade 9 or 10. The students enrolled at these higher levels make up only 30 percent of the students who attempt to complete their school. This percentage of enrolment shrinks further as the level of education increases.

The successful exit from the education system of the enrolled students is evidenced by their mark sheets, which highlight their achievement and apparent educational performance, also defining their future paths. Unfortunately, in many cases, these mark sheets also exemplify collusion or negotiation among students or between students and the administrative apparatus to co-evaluate students’ performance. While this depicts attitudinal disregard for honesty and educational integrity, it also poses a grave challenge for educational governance.

For the year 2022, multiple instances of cheating were reported during Matric and as well as Intermediate exams. The Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (BISE), Lahore could not guard the distribution of exam papers, as some of them were leaked before the start of exams. The same happened in the Rawalpindi Board, where the mathematics paper was leaked in a government high school in Nara, Tehsil Kahuta, which resulted in the cancellation of two exams. Multiple such cases were reported by the Board of Secondary Education Karachi, the Board of Intermediate Education Karachi, BISE Larkana and Hyderabad, among others.

A mathematics paper for Grade 9 was leaked in Sukkur just a few hours before the exam. Almost 38 centre officers were held responsible for the mismanagement by the education authorities.

Standard examination activities undertaken by examination boards include designing a question paper, ensuring its timely dissemination, arranging examination centres, registering and facilitating students for assessments, appointing invigilation staff, ensuring provision of other necessities to administer the exam and, eventually, compiling and announcing results.

Unfortunately, these administrative tasks also provide avenues for rampant corruption. There are multiple news stories in every exam season covering irregularities in exam timings, uncomfortable seating arrangements in exam centres and facilitation by the invigilating staff to enable students to exchange sheets or to refer to notes in the examination room.

Even worse, there have been instances where external people have been reported in examination centres, either armed or in uniforms, to help certain students cheat during the board assessment.

In some instances, board exams have also been conducted under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) of Pakistan, which empowers the district administration to issue orders against the use of cell phones during the exam period.

According to the Controller Balochistan Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education, the same section also disallows any photocopy shop from opening nearby examination centres. The section also prevents unauthorised persons from entering examination centres. However, there are always ways to circumvent the law.

The inspection team was present for all three hours. But once the team left, the invigilation staff, which had earlier taken money from students to allow cheating (according to both the brother and the student), gave two additional hours — out of “moral compulsion” — for the students to complete their paper.

Interestingly, an examination centre for a private college in Baldia Town in Karachi was changed overnight and shifted to another venue, a move which was not even in the knowledge of the centre’s superintendent. This incident literally established that, if the law bars any activities within or nearby official centres, the centre itself can be changed.

Assessments provide an important feedback mechanism to students, parents, school administrations, policymakers and the entire provincial education system. Since education is a provincial subject, all provinces have their respective Sector Plans for Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) education, with defined goals spread over five years. All provincial sector plans have a dedicated chapter for assessments to ensure provision of quality education and learning.

One of the defining features of a sound education system is the integrity of its examination system. Hence, the emphasis on assessments needs to be viewed alongside monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to measure the credibility of exams — and this depends on systemic transparency and accountability.

The Political Economy of Cheating

Cheating is not just a behavioural issue. In fact, there are multiple administrative layers facilitating the process.

The brother of a Grade 9 student shares that the family was extremely worried when his brother had not returned home after a three hour-long exam. Later, when they went to the centre looking for him, they found that the inspection team had made a surprise visit and taken away all the cell phones from students, to prevent them from cheating.

The inspection team was present for all three hours. But once the team left, the invigilation staff, which had earlier taken money from students to allow cheating (according to both the brother and the student), gave two additional hours — out of “moral compulsion” — for the students to complete their paper.

The hierarchy of professional dishonesty often begins from the position of the chairman of the board itself and travels down to the lowest rung of the administrative staff. The official placements and designations in the assessment boards are often regarded as ‘gold mines’.

It is indeed an ironic term — instead of using gold to denote knowledge as treasure and to elevate the worth of learning, administrative institutions associate gold with the opportunity for corruption. So much so that the placements and positions in these boards are politically influenced or sold against huge sums of money. Requesting anonymity, one chairperson of the Board of Secondary Education, Karachi alleged that “people” of the provincial minister for universities and boards asked him for a hefty amount for the posting.  Not only do incompetent people with poor ethics become officeholders, but they also fail to understand the significance of assessments and learning.

People administering the system are not necessarily guardians of the entire process of assessment. In fact, they may as well be the figurehead of corrupt monetary practices that enable the students to manipulate their scores and percentages.

A member of the Sindh Board of Technical Education’s vigilance team confiscates a candidate’s smartphone and answer book during an exam at the Government Comprehensive Higher Secondary School for Boys in Azizabad | Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
A member of the Sindh Board of Technical Education’s vigilance team confiscates a candidate’s smartphone and answer book during an exam at the Government Comprehensive Higher Secondary School for Boys in Azizabad | Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

The Mechanics of Exam Preparation

Matric and Intermediate exams hold high stakes for students in terms of further education. Therefore, a lot of effort goes into preparing for these exams. Unfortunately, in many instances, this effort is gravely misdirected.

A prevalent preparation strategy noticed among Matric and Intermediate students is to acquire ‘guess papers’, which help in ascertaining the trend of questions asked in the exams. This trend-speculation works because the teachers commissioned to make exam papers themselves follow a trend which allows for the repetition of questions, thus setting a pattern for students to guess.

Even more strategically, some students also tend to arrange preliminary exam papers (conducted before the board exams) of the colleges from where the teachers were commissioned, in anticipation that some questions from these preliminary exams may as well be asked.

After all this preparation, “Paper out aya tha” (The paper was leaked) is a colloquial phrase often used by students to complain about the exams. It does not always mean that the questions in the exam paper were out-of-syllabus; rather, it means that the questions were contrary to the guessed pattern followed by the students while preparing.

In case the preparation falls short, students resort to materials that could be carried into the exam centres for prompt reference.

There exists an entire supply chain of publishers, suppliers and sellers of material that enable cheating. For instance, pocket-sized guide books are readily sold in the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, despite being banned in the province. Micro-photocopying is a widely used option for its convenience, as it accommodates more content on a small piece of paper.

It is ironic that the printing and publishing that once enabled intellectual production in China or the House of Wisdom in Iraq or the European Renaissance is being used to counter the same process.

A famous quote, often attributed to Martin Luther, goes, “Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.” This is perhaps being put to the test in our context. These mechanics of educational corruption have been upgraded utilising technology during exams to draw relevant support.

Needless to say, it would be a misguided oversimplification to blame the technology for cheating when there are other core issues that need to be addressed. One such issue is that there is a growing number of people who are financially dependent on cheating taking place, which has created an economy of its own.

Tacit Societal Consensus

It is unfortunate that the societal response against cheating in exams has never been too strong. When the monsoon rains hit, or roads get blocked, or any other socio-economic issue surfaces, it is generally picked up by people and talked about. But cheating? Not so much.

The purpose of this convenient comparison is not to undermine the significance of any issue. It is only to accentuate the difference in the attention and criticism directed towards various societal challenges: cheating weighs too low on the priority list.

One of the primary reasons behind this is that many people who can afford quality private education, or are affiliated with private boards, see cheating as a non-issue. It is a growing norm that a problem is not really a problem unless it is self-experienced. Those who cannot afford private affiliations simply follow the rules of the game.

While great effort goes into preparing for cheating, there also exists a unique social support system that not only enables the process, but also sets it as a criterion to evaluate relational bonds. Parents wrongfully make it a self-imposed parental compulsion to support their children by every means, even if that entails bribing exam administrators. Similarly, friends are not good enough unless they permit one glance at their answer sheets or altogether pass them around for a better look.

There also exists a ‘selfless’ mechanism: a friend can sit an exam for you; otherwise, paid services are also available for appearing in exams on behalf of a candidate. Similarly, invigilators are supportive if they are not unnecessarily strict during the examination setting. This societal indifference — and indeed active support — for educational dishonesty may help in short-term gains, but it cannot enable true human development that, in turn, blocks economic progress.

Ethics for Education Governance

Almost all provincial sector plans argue that community engagement makes an important part of effective education delivery. This is greatly elaborated in Balochistan’s detailed sector plan. Since education is not an act performed in isolation, there should, ideally, be societal engagement to ensure better systemic accountability and transparency.

In view of the economy of cheating and the entire supply chain of professional and societal dishonesty, there is extensive engagement of multiple stakeholders with the broader education system. It is essential to reflect on whether the notion of governance and community engagement will be effective without common ethical grounds.

It is unfortunate that teachers, students, administrators, politicians, parents and all other abettors of the process of cheating have their internal justifications to facilitate it. These self-drawn explanations defend dishonesty against conscientious accountability. The prevalence of this educational malfunction has almost settled this internal battle, where cheating has been slowly internalised without remorse. Being able to successfully cheat is viewed as being smart about the rules of the game. Phrases such as “You need wits to even cheat” provide positive reinforcement to this act of dishonesty.

In an article published in 2016 by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, titled ‘Ethical Collaboration’, researchers identified three potential causal drivers for cheating: peer pressure, careless use of technology and a community-wide ethos of cheating. The idea of ‘community-wide ethos’ resonates well with us in Pakistan where there seems to be an emerging normalisation of cheating. While speaking to a student about the reasons for this act, he argued that even if I don’t cheat, others will and that will be unfair.

It is important to realise that values in a society can only be followed, adopted and practised when they are collectively shared and widely respected. When students feel a sense of pressure and extensive competition to win a seat in tertiary education programs and later job positions, a ‘survival of the fittest’ sort of situation emerges, which in private thought justifies many acts. Where this is an ethical dilemma, it is also an inability to understand and handle real life challenges, which do not necessarily require unethical means to progress. 

Ethics forms the core of self-accountability, which constitutes the broader framework of governance and is the basic condition for personal and professional integrity. There is a strong connection and interdependence between ethics and governance. There cannot be transparency and accountability unless there exists a collective sense of common ethical understanding, which forces self-discipline on an individual as well as at a collective level.

It is unfortunate that no sector plan talks about cheating as an issue in the education system in Pakistan except Balochistan’s Sector Plan, which mentions the word “cheating” more than 70 times. In fact, it is also perhaps the only province where a noticeable voice was raised by students, teachers and legislators against this educational malpractice. Moreover, the sector plan mentions reduction in cheating as one of the quality indicators, which at least reflects the correctness of the provincial direction. 

Multi-faceted Implications

Students do not simply start cheating in large-scale assessments out of the blue. It is a behaviour they have most likely picked up during school and college, where they should ideally be prepared and taught for final exams. Either students are not given the required ethical training during their school or college days, or they are not taught properly, which leaves them unprepared for large-scale exams.

According to the World Bank, 75 percent of children in Pakistan are facing “learning poverty” — that is, they cannot read a simple text by the age of 10. This percentage was most likely to increase, based on the learning losses during the pandemic, to 79 percent during Covid-19. Similarly, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) of 2021 suggests that almost 45 percent of Grade 5 students cannot read a simple sentence in Urdu and other regional languages.

In view of this grim situation, it is highly unlikely that these students can manage to catch up in later years; education gaps usually compound over time. Since many public schools have an auto-promotion policy — that is, students are automatically promoted to the next grade — even if these students manage to reach the final years of schooling, they are certainly not prepared to pass the board exams.

The planning and facilitation that goes into enabling or supporting cheating is an act to whitewash the incompetence that have existed for years. These fallacies continue when students clear their exams by whatever means, giving schools and colleges a chance to celebrate their successful delivery.

Yet it is also important to see what assessments are actually testing students about. Guess papers, patterned questions, the predictability of examinations and the possibility to draft responses in advance reflect that the exam questions test knowledge rather than understanding, application, analysis or ability to create new knowledge.

Measuring on the thinking order provided by Bloom’s Taxonomy (a set of three hierarchical models used for classification of educational learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity), most of the exam questions are based on remembering. Coupled with set patterns, these push students to prioritise as to what requires memorising. This tests only their “regurgitative mastery”, as psychologist Donald Campbell put it. When students suspect that their capacity to memorise will not be enough, they resort to alternate means to supplement their mental space.

Cheating has grave consequences. Cheating can help pass Matric and Intermediate examinations, but it does not help in later exams or situations, where competence, understanding or even knowledge might be tested. For instance, two reports published in the leading newspapers revealed the results of entrance tests for NED and Dawood College of Engineering and stated that even A and A-1 grade-holders fail to pass entrance exams of tertiary education institutions, which questions their prior education attainment.

This then translates into unemployment figures, as almost 24 percent of ‘educated’ people in Pakistan are still unemployed. This is not to state that cheating alone is the reason behind the figure, especially when industrial and overall economic expansion are pressing issues as well. But the mismatch between the educated human resources produced and the resource required in the labour market remains a point of concern. When the education system itself requires a reboot, cheating only helps in placing one at the lowest rung of unpreparedness. 

Re-orienting the Focus of Education

The global community is leading an international conversation around transforming education in view of the changing times. The UN’s Transforming Education Summit, scheduled for September this year in New York, shall gather education advocates to reflect what has worked for education thus far and what needs to change and how. This global refocus is also a nudge for countries to pause and rethink their educational challenges and re-orient their priorities for their socio-economic progress.

This global re-orientation may as well present an added challenge for a developing country such as Pakistan, which not only needs to chalk out a strategy for future progress, but also to repair its existing structures. To ensure that Pakistan’s education system remains relevant and effective, it needs to consider a system-wide approach to pick every facet of the educational system to design its theory of change, one that is both reparative and progressive.

One important aspect of this systemic approach for quality education is to understand and re-orient the assessment regimes of Kindergarten to Grade 12 in all the provinces. This could be done through the strategic use of assessments that are highlighted in the respective provincial education sector plans assessments, as also highlighted by respective sector plans.

Formative assessments, in this case, can help mould behaviours and mindsets of students by inculcating a spirit of learning instead of pushing them into a rat race to score high marks by whatever means. Years of school and college education should serve as preparatory grounds for board exams, where the nature of board exams should align with the nature of assessment regimes in preceding years.

This improvement in assessments can be made by shifting the focus of the question from knowledge-testing to higher-order thinking skills, which limits the possibility of cheating in the first place. Along with these essential changes, there is a need for a dedicated effort to build a collective understanding of minimal ethical considerations among all the stakeholders on both the individual and collective level. This is essential to ensure effective education delivery.

All the provincial education sector plans must address the aspect of cheating as part of the required education interventions. Since sector plans present a blueprint or an essential reference point for education planners and education advocates, it is important to at least acknowledge that cheating is a problem that not only affects one’s ethical foundations, but compromises the nation’s socio-economic progress as well.

In view of increasing technological advancements and the need for prompt socio-economic responsiveness, uncertainty defines the 21st century. What will society be like in the near future? What skillsets are needed for people to survive? These are difficult questions to answer. But one fundamental approach is to make students independent learners who can contribute productively towards social progress. This requires education institutions to update their education measures and alter the rules of the game to ensure that the country’s human resource remains relevant.

Ranking second in the highest number of out-of-school children globally, Pakistan consists of a significant percentage of children that are facing ‘learning poverty’. With a bourgeoning rise in unemployment among the youth, Pakistan cannot afford to further compromise on its human development. Undermining the implications of cheating, educational dishonesty and ill-planned education can cost us both in the present and in the future.

Nadeem Hussain is an economic and education policy researcher and strategist. He is co-author of The Economy of Modern Sindh and Agents of Change

Qazi Muhammad Zulqurnain Ul Haq is an education evaluation specialist and a founding director of Youth Center for Research (YCR)

Data Insights by: Data Pilot — an organisation that helps businesses in extracting meaningful insights from data

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 28th, 2022

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