Ethics and Examinations

When it comes to performing on the basis of that set of skills and knowledge, they are lost. Cheating can only get one so far. The only person one has cheated on is oneself

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: May 23, 2013 08:39:35 AM UTC
Chasing the perfect score?

“Did you get the Ten Year papers?”

I remember that question from decades ago, when I took the first board examination. A collection of previous question papers, and even better, model answers. A perfect set of course would include answer sheets of the student who consistently scored, even if one could not get their board exam answer sheets.

Now the UPSC is opening up its - dare I say coffers... It is opening up access to its old answer sheets and has actually shared marking schemes. This is very good news for prospective candidates. They actually have a sense of what they are working towards. On the other hand, there is the niggling question - did the system just allow itself to be gamed a bit more?

This is what I remember of every examination I or my friends have taken and ‘cracked’. Yes, that was the term used - we used to crack it open. Demystify it and then beat it down with sheer hard work. Of course there were some geniuses who claim they never studied for any competitive examination.

(On a side note, shouldn't examination boards be briefing their candidates better)

The process was simple. We’d gather as many question papers as we could. The past ten year papers for the class ten (age 16) board examination were easily available at any bookstore. Printed with black ink that leaked on to cheap paper with occasional but few errors, the booklets were a treasure. Armed with the knowledge that each ‘examiner’ set papers for three years, we knew what was required.

The three year term of the examiner was an urban legend, but the papers did follow a cyclical pattern. All we had to do was identify where we were in the 3 year cycle..if it was the third year of that particular examiner, it was incredibly easy to guess the question paper, because the same examiner was unlikely to ask the same question twice, and of course, they had to give adequate weightage to each area - the broader ten year trend showed us that clearly.

Did everyone do this? I don’t know. Everyone I knew did.

This was probably the most sensible use of the mathematics, statistics, logic and deduction that we had been taught over the years.

It is only now I wonder whether this was right. The Ethical line is always drawn faintly in grey, and often seems to move gently, almost sway. It might not be a bad idea to question ourselves, past and future, once in a while. This was and is, certainly on the safe side of the line. This is still right, and not wrong.

(Photo: Amit Verma)

We never cheated, though we knew plenty who did. Entire examination centres, sometimes invigilators were reported to be compromised. Dark rumours of the papers ‘leaking’ flew fast and hard before the big paper. It is not very different now. In a certain Eastern state, it was reported, heads of educational establishments advised their employees to allow candidates to cheat in an examination for fear of personal reprisals. Cheating is an examination taking skill for a significant proportion of students. This dishonesty certainly skews the results and futures of many a candidate, but that is not the worst of it. What is worse is that those who have cheated do not know what they claim to know. When it comes to performing on the basis of that set of skills and knowledge, they are lost. Cheating can only get one so far. The only person one has cheated on is oneself.

And sadly, what is lost is trust in the system.

Which has implications for the future.

Connectivity has brought to us a range of distance education resources, and will bring us more. Technology is seen as a part of the solution to the issues of access, standards (not necessarily quality), faculty shortage, cost management among other things. Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) have seen a huge response from India, it being the largest international group to participate in these courses. While there are assignments, assessments, tests, peer learning groups and peer marking - none of these lead to actual credits at any Universities.

While it is early days yet, and credit systems are being worked out (which of course means a revenue model is being put in place), one of the biggest hurdles in countries such as India is ethical. India has a reputation for being untrustworthy in assessment systems. Our students cheat, our invigilators collude. Not all, but enough to undermine the future. Enough to hold back the MOOCs from certifying even those who worked honestly. Sure, technology can allow for iris recognition and keystroke pattern matching type solutions. But as a savvy friend said - ‘what stops people from having some one sitting under the table holding answer materials reading out to the candidate?’

This is the big question. What stops people from being dishonest?

Many have grown up believing that cheating is not such a large crime. Sorry, a wrong is a wrong. And must not be allowed. Many think, it is fine to cheat because everyone does it. Sorry again. Not everyone does it. And even if they do, it is still wrong. Then, comes the argument - if others get ahead by cheating, why should I be the only dumb one left behind? I admit, I still think it is wrong, but in such a situation, do you have a good answer? The examination is a hurdle, a high stakes hurdle to be crossed. They will think of competence another day, about meeting the task when it comes to them. First they have to survive this day, this examination. So examinations become about beating the system in any way possible. The effort is directed away from expanding learning (don’t mock) and goes towards gaming compliance standards.

This starts at school, corrupting more than just that moment. It is not surprising that the Rajat Gupta case and the Ranbaxy story have been in the news this week with damaging implications for investments to India. Both these, and many others, tell the story of lax ethical standards in doing business with India. And often, these are seen as the pragmatic option, the norm. Gaming the system was never wrong in a regime where rules were myriad, complex and often contradicted each other - this changed in a globalised world. Gaming the system was seen as morally separate from cheating the system e.g. tax avoidance is not the same as tax evasion. The world has changed. In this post-crisis regime even contracted business leader compensation has been returned to shareholders - having been labeled as ‘fat-cat-salaries’. The Bangladesh garment factory disaster is an avoidable tragedy that started with compromised ethics. The new social and work contract extends far beyond the standards expected in the past.

(Photo: Nicholas Prior/ Getty Images)

Strong ethical standards create environments of trust where it is easy to do business. Business is done in teams, where resources, milestones and conclusions are shared. Our education systems need to be geared towards fostering trust and co-operation, not silos of individual regurgitation. Standardised testing is under fire for various compelling reasons, but the ethical reasons outweigh the rest. These tests may be efficient, but they foster the wrong sets of values for a society that aims for sustainable growth. So, what if our major senior exams were, say, open book. What if there were no incentives to cheat? What if there were fewer rules to break? What if, students could talk to each other, as they do in the real world? After all, examinations are supposed to test and verify if a candidate can operate in the real world. Would such tests still be gamed? Would the ethical filters be different? Would candidates still be working with - ‘I’m sure we can get away with it, who cares if it is wrong’ - attitudes?

For the India of tomorrow, the ethics of yesterday are not going to work. These values and ethics start at school, in the classrooms and in the examination halls. For long have many argued for low stakes testing to replace the make or break examination system that incentivizes people to cheat. It may not be fair to blame examinations for all ethical issues, but the sensitivity to right and wrong begins at school.

The Indian system now seeks to introduce some value testing in their examinations. What sounds like a good idea, in principle, may not, in practice, be the best design to serve the purpose at hand. While there is a place for discussion of values within a school environment, testing directly, in exchange for marks is a daring move. Can one ever, for five marks, honestly and completely write out what the ‘right’ pathways are, or is it merely about providing the right prescribed answer? What would you do? Game the system and get the marks?

Ethical Reasoning may be learnt with reflection and practice, and we must actively invest in it as part of our education inside and outside schools. It is time to rebuild the credibility that has been lost.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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