How Jordanian students cheat at high school exams
Amman – “Lower your voice; Mohamed is studying for his tawjihi [high school certification] exam.” “Mohamed is not here.” This is what anyone, even a relative, visiting Abu Mohamed’s home will hear repeatedly. Throughout the year, the family had been fraught with anxiety, fearing their son would face the same fate as his cousin Amer and lose a year of his life in order to repeat the official exams. For young people in Jordan, these exams are either a gateway to the future or to their decline.
A curfew has paralysed the family all year long. Visits were not welcome for the most part, except for private tutors who enter and leave Mohamed’s room, in hope that he will make his parents proud.
More than 130,000 male and female secondary students face the same charged atmosphere this year.
But some of those families and students are unaware of the deterioration of the “doyen” of Jordanian school examinations. It has been the most important national Jordanian examination for the past 50 years.
But it does not seem difficult anymore to leak its questions and trade them through electronic networks specialized in selling real, official exam papers along with their answers.
This is in addition to evidence of negligence and cheating throughout the examination halls and the collusion of some trusted officials, hall supervisors, and those monitoring the quality of exams and reliability of their output.
This investigation uncovers the hidden world of leaking and trading in exam papers and their answers. This is done through teams of young men with cellphones and laptops who are provided with the leaked questions from inside the exam halls.
The questions are then solved by teachers of the subject and relayed back to the students/clients inside the halls using SMS messages or small earphones.
This is allowed to happen due to weak and inefficient monitoring from the Education Ministry and some heads of exam halls and monitors who turn a blind eye to signs of cheating.
A Live Experiment
I started to become interested in the issue after hearing random stories from students and the media about cheating in secondary examination halls. So I decided to investigate the extent of the problem by going through the certification exams again, having graduated six years ago.
After registering for the secondary education certificate for the summer session of the 2011-2012 school year, I began a journey between agents and brokers who belonged to what seem to be organized cells trading in examination questions and answers.
I also filmed scenes of negligence and cheating inside two examination halls in Amman and Madaba using a hidden camera.
I had agreed with a broker to purchase the questions of the Earth Sciences Level 3 exams for (US$141) to be solved by an expert teacher, and sent to a relative during the exam through a cell phone. The broker fell for the offer.
At 9am on 30 June 2012, I received an MMS containing a full image of the exam paper. The incident was recorded on video.
This investigation team managed to infiltrate five cells specialized in selling the questions and answers of the certification exam for the summer session in Madaba. We also identified similar cells in Salt, Sahab, al-Zarqa, and some areas of the capital, Amman.
The price list for answers for the Science Section exam questions began at JD25 ($35) and reached JD200 ($280) each. For the Literary Section, prices ranged between JD10 ($14) to over JD150 ($210). And for Information Management, JD15 ($21).
The price for a full exam sheet ranged between JD75 ($105) and JD1,000 ($1,400). It changed depending on the section, the subject’s difficulty, level, and reason of purchase.
Questions about ministerial history for the third and fourth levels in the literary section were purchased at the beginning of the two exams for JD75 ($106) each. They came from one of the cells in Madaba. The sheets did not contain any seals or names of students.
But it was obvious that the questions for third level history were photographed by one of the students. The answers booklet can be seen in the corners of the picture. This was duly documented by the investigating team.
The cells purchased and leaked the questions in order to relay solutions to students later during the exam, through mobile phones.
It was not just the questions. Most of the transactions were for the solutions, the students’ ultimate goal. We were able to purchase several different copies of 12 official exam questions for interdisciplinary subjects and the scientific, literary, and other sections from seven cells in Madaba, Sahab, and al-Zarqa.
After paying the required price, it was time to receive the solutions to the exam questions.
At the Abu Ubaydah (2) School’s Computer Sciences Level 3 examination hall in the city of Madaba, I sat for the exams as a privately tutored student.
Ten minutes into the meeting, my phone began to vibrate. The message contained the solutions to some of the questions. More messages followed and I jotted them down on the booklet.
The exam monitors looked uninterested, although they noticed that I was copying one answer after the other from my mobile phone. They merely warned me that I could be banned if the head monitor found out.
Thirty minutes before the exam, a dark blue Hyundai Avante was parked outside the Abu Ubaydah school in Madaba. In it sat three young men. It was surrounded by students who were paying for questions whose answers would later be sent to their mobile phones during the exam.
Negotiations began with a typical question from the broker. “How many subjects do you have?” (He meant the number of fields they were taking exams for, to make sure they are not “free agents.”)
After agreeing on the price, Ahmed, the head of the cell, asked for the mobile number where the answers will be received. His partners quickly typed it on one of the ten phones they carried and moved on to another client.
This is how I purchased solutions for three exams from this “Hyundai cell” for JD15 ($21) each. The answers arrived ten minutes into the exam.
When I approached Ahmed the broker later to tell him about my true intentions, he categorically denied the incident.
One of the question-and-answer merchants is Aous (pseudonym), who was sitting for the certification exam.
I tried to convince the 18 year-old that I needed to buy the solutions for the BA section exams. We agreed on a time and place.
Outside the Madaba courthouse, I called Ahmed to inform him of my arrival. He came out from the coffee shop across the street and we sat on the sidewalk to negotiate.
Aous asked for my seat number and exam card, which he carefully inspected before agreeing to send the solutions of all the subjects to my mobile phone a few minutes into the meeting. The price was JD15 ($21) for interdisciplinary subjects and JD20 ($28) for specialization.
Aous said solving the questions is supervised by “specialized teachers” but he would not identify them. To dispel my fear of being unable to use a mobile phone during the exam, he said that supervisors are lenient with students.
He also said they knew his father who has a “prominent position in the education ministry.” Thanks to this relationship, Aous assured me that I will get an 85 percent average after receiving the answers on my phone.
We visited Aous at home several times and confirmed the identity of his father, who is a high ranking official at the education ministry.
To no avail, I tried to find out how the young man obtained the exam questions. But it was clear that the whole family is in this “business.” According to Aous, his brother and friends “obtain the goods” and he is in charge of “marketing.”
The operation was successful. During the exam, I received all the answers on my mobile phone, just as Aous had promised. They were verified with the assistance of secondary school teachers and found to be around 90 percent correct.
When Aous was confronted with the journalistic nature of the transaction, he replied in a cold tone. “Tell them I am a trader and whatever comes out, they can put it back in the drawers,” he challenged.
Issa (pseudonym) wants to keep his seasonal business of trading certification exams. He is the distributor for many of the small brokers.
I asked him for the Chemistry questions so I can have them solved by the best teachers in the kingdom. He did not hesitate to offer the questions for free if I provide the answers. This way, neither of us pays anything and Issa will keep his reputation in the field.
Issa agreed on a partnership next season after I told him I would be interested in trading questions and answers.
When confronted, Issa nervously denied that he had sold or traded secondary certificate exam questions.
Leaking the Questions
One of the young men working in an examination hall explained the process leading to the answers being sent to students mobile phones. The requirements are two personal computers, ten mobile phones, at least one teacher in the specialized field, and more than six people in the operation’s room.
“The questions are leaked by a student who registers for the exams. His job is to take pictures of the questions the moment they are distributed to the students in the examination hall, using a smartphone. Then he sends them to the cell.”
“The cell might ask for the assistance of some monitors or supervisors to leak the questions themselves, also through smartphones, and send them to the operation’s room,” Amer explained.
“The moment the questions arrive there, a specialized teacher begins to solve them one by one. The ‘solutions’ are given in turn to the computer team. They are typed and promptly sent to the smartphones carried by the other team members.”
“They are then sent as SMS messages to the students who had already paid for them,” he continued.
“There is an ongoing business and trade in the official secondary examinations in Jordan. It is no longer difficult to leak any question anywhere in the country,” said the Director of Education in Salt district Dr. Mohamed Kalloub.
His Madaba counterpart said there were students “who are not there to sit for the exams, but to obtain the exam questions and leak them outside the hall. This is either through taking pictures with their mobile phones or sneaking out with them. There are also other ways which elude the education ministry.”
When sitting for the exams, I personally observed some young men who seemed to be there only to photograph the questions and send them to the cells.
On the first day of the summer session that I sat for, I noticed one of those young men arriving late. As soon as he sat down, he took out his mobile phone and took pictures of the questions, then sent them through cellphone messages.
He then proceeded to request if he could use the toilet. When the monitors refused, he forced his way outside the hall, eluding the teachers.
Leaking the Questions Before the Exams
Sometimes, the questions arrived ahead of the exams period to enable the students/clients to prepare solutions. Khaldoun, in his 20s, is a student who was up for the secondary exams in Qasabat Irbid in the north. He said he received part of the questions the day before exams.
But it was not just the English subject exam that was leaked to him. He managed to obtain some of the questions for Islamic Cultures, Arabic Communications Skills, and Maths for the Scientific Section.
Khaldoun confirmed that the questions he received were correct and the same as those distributed by the ministry in the examinations hall.
The investigating team managed to obtain a copy of a parliamentary memo sent on 24 January 2012 by 25 Jordanian MPs. It requested the formation of a committee of inquiry about the leaking of secondary certification exams for the winter session in several subjects, in addition to increased cheating inside the exam halls.
Accusations of Some Ministry Officials
Hamza al-Sharabi, a schoolteacher from al-Mufarraq district accused unnamed “officials at the Education Ministry” of leaking the questions for the general secondary certificate exams to some families in the area for the benefit of their children.
Sharabi said that the cost of one leaked test paper before the examination date in the district could reach up to JD1,000 ($1,400).
“There is no specific method for leaking the question sheets from the hall during the exams. It could even be people employed in the educational institution,” Kalloub explained.
“Participants in the certificate exams have been known to use all sorts of cheating methods, from cellphones to hearing aids (a lentil-sized speaker placed in the ear to listen to answers over the cellphone). Sometimes solutions are announced over loudspeakers,” he continued.
During the summer 2012 session, I sat through at the Abu Ubaydah (2) school and managed to take images of the disarray and cheating inside the hall. Five different exam subject sessions were documented, until the monitors discovered the camera being used.
But this was not before the documentation of the noise that filled the room 10 minutes into one exam. It was the sound of SMS notifications emanating from the students’ phones, announcing the arrival of the answers. The monitors were also lenient in allowing mobile phones into the hall to be used for fraud.
Commenting on the issue, Qasbat Madaba, Director of Education said that “cellphones and communications devices are unfortunately one of the main factors for the spread of cheating. They allow communication between exam takers and persons outside the hall…Cheating is an ever-present phenomenon that is not confined to a certain region or time.”
Several students in Salt, Amman, and Karak confirmed media reports about examination solutions being read out through loudspeakers close to the examination halls.
But in a faxed reply to our questions, the Education Ministry denied “the existence of complaints about leaking the questions for the tawjihi exams.”
The Ministry Threatens to Sue the Authors
Shortly before the publication of this report, I received a call from the media spokesperson in the Education Ministry Ayman Barakat. He informed me of the minister’s wish to meet me, following several failed attempts at contacting him.
I went with two colleagues and joined Barakat to inform Education Minister Fayez al-Saoudi about the investigation’s findings, requesting his reply.
But Saoudi reacted by attempting to discourage me from publishing the report, threatening to take me to court.
“I have incriminating information about you that would scandalize you. I will get them broadcast on public television,” he threatened. Then he asked us not to publish the investigation “to protect Jordan’s reputation” and then ended the meeting.
Despite this episode, the minister confirmed the existence of novel cheating methods in an interview on the private satellite channel Roya days before the publication of this investigation.
I had requested information concerning the subject under investigation, using Law 47 of 2007 which guarantees access to information. But the ministry only replied to four of the seven questions. The replies were general and did not adequately answer the queries.
Salt: “Boldly” Leaking the Questions
At the Adib Wehbe School in Salt, where the English Level 3 exams are being held, armored vehicle and dozens of gendarmes and general security forces surrounded the building. More than 70 people, young and old, men and women, were outside. Some sat in the grocery store across the street.
Half an hour into the exam, a silver Hyundai Accent hurriedly parked near the school. A young man in his twenties climbed out, carrying a stack of papers. It turns out they are the solutions to the exam taking place inside.
He sent the young boys to climb over the school fence and go to the windows, where they would throw the questions to relatives and friends inside the examination hall.
The policemen tried to stop them to no avail. I personally witnessed the details of this scene.
Meanwhile, I noticed young men throwing bags tied down with rocks, containing the answers over the school’s western fence. The catchers stood on the roof and then took the replies into the hall.
One of the monitors looked out from the window. He asked the boy-smugglers on the fence to do it quietly while his colleague urged them to hurry before the exam time is up.
Similar scenes were documented in the Husni Fareez schoolyard in Salt during the winter 2012 maths examination session.
“The solutions for the exam questions were forcibly brought into the exam halls. The head of the hall, his assistant, and the monitor were all trying to stop the operation. Windows and steel barricades were broken, in addition to physical assaults.”
The Many Forms of Cheating
An informal survey prepared for the investigation was answered by 142 secondary certificate students from all over Jordan sitting for the summer session.
It showed that 56 percent of the students attempted to cheat during the certificate exams — 46 percent actually cheated and 20 percent used a mobile phone or cheat-sheets.
While 72 percent of those sampled said that monitors overlook the cheating that occurs in their halls, 51 percent said that heads of halls have also condoned such practices.
Around 93 percent said they knew about cheating and 86 percent said they have friends who cheated in the tawjihi.
According to statistics from the Education Ministry, there were 2,495 instances of punitive measures taken to “address cheating” during the summer session. They included 303 warnings, 1,499 invalidations of subjects, 626 invalidations of the current session, 14 invalidations of two consecutive sessions and court referrals.
The number of students sitting for that session was almost 138,000.
The Illusion of Monitoring Inside Examination Halls
In the above-mentioned hall where I sat for my exams, the head supervisor confiscated a mobile phone being used by Abdullah (not his real name) to cheat. A few minutes later, one of the monitors returned the phone to the student who was allowed to use it throughout the exam session without application of the anti-cheating measures.
A few days later, the same head supervisor caught Mahmoud (not his real name) using his smartphone to cheat. It was confiscated but quickly returned by one of the monitors and the student continued cheating.
“Half an hour before the end of the exam, I would have copied 28 answers from one of the exemplary students,” explained Zayd, a tawjihi student from central Amman.
“In the maths for the sciences section exam, I gave the multiple choice answers to the monitor to distribute them (for cheating) to my fellow students in the hall,” Zayd said. He boasted about cheating in all of the subjects he sat for in the summer session.
A monitor who saw me cheating asked if I could help one of his relatives with the answers.
Another monitor solved several of the Islamic Culture questions in one of the exam halls in Amman, according to a student called Omar, who witnessed the incident.
I personally observed one of the monitors standing at my exam hall door to warn cheating students if inspectors or the head of the hall came close.
“The Education [Ministry]… The Education [Ministry],” the hall usher would alert the monitors of approaching ministry inspectors to hide the signs of cheating and stay calm.
I witnessed one monitor playing with his mobile phone. Another was texting his colleague in the same room. A third monitor spent the exam time speaking from inside the hall. These were in the Abu Ubaydah (2) school and are considered a violation of the measures approved by the ministry.
|Measures to combat cheating in secondary certification exams are included in Article 29 Paragraph (a) of the Education Law no.3 (1994) and its amendments. They address the following issues:
– Instances of cheating inside the halls, including copying from those nearby, using sheets of paper, tearing up the questions sheet or the answers booklet, or attempting to take them out of the hall, sitting in the place of another participant, impersonating a student, and using cellphones, any type of headset or similar device, computers, recording, and other equipment.
– Punishments for such violations range between warnings, invalidation of exam in the particular subject, invalidation of all subjects in the current session, leading to the invalidation of all subjects for two consecutive sessions and referral to a court of law. Decisions are final and applied immediately.
One hour before the exam, I walked into a student services store and asked, “Do you have the Islamic Culture mini cheats?” The owner said yes and offered several copies of required Koran chapters, in addition to Sharia laws and definitions, all in a miniature size smaller than the palm of my hand. I bought some of them for half a JD each.
The applicant’s examination for a given subject is invalidated according to the anti-cheating measures of the education law in the following cases:
– If the answers booklet shows a difference in handwriting during the correction process.
– If mass cheating in the examination hall is apparent during the correction process.
I bought a miniature of the computer sciences book for JD1 ($1.4). Complete miniature copies of any secondary certificate book are sold for that price at bookshops packed with students on the day of the exam.
Out of the five book and student supplies shops I visited in Madaba, four made small-sized copies of the textbooks and sold them during exams.
In al-Ashrafieh and the Nazzal neighborhood in east Amman, I identified three out of four stores that sold the secondary certificate textbooks in that manner.
In Salt, the answers are sold during exams in the regular A4 size, also for JD1.
These copies are brought into the exam halls by parents and relatives, during exam sessions. This is how I received a copy of the answers for Maths Level 4, Scientific Section.
Cheating is Exposed During Correction
As some maths exams were being graded in some departments, teachers caught several common mistakes. Spelling mistakes were identical.
In one case, a line left empty in in the cheat-sheet was also left empty in consecutive answers booklets. This indicated that students had cheated en masse from the same source. All of this was confirmed by Ghassan (pseudonym), who worked on correcting maths exams for the summer 2012 session.
While mass fraud was apparent, cheating through cellphones was glaringly obvious. “Cheating through a phone is easy to catch. This was the case for more than 30 percent of answers booklets,” he told us.
“For example, some students would use the letter ‘h’ instead of the integration sign, like you would use in an SMS. Or the use of mathematical signs on a phone’s keyboard that are not necessarily the same if written in a textbook. This confirms the use of mobile phones in cheating,” Ghassan explained.
With great emotion, he said, “We cannot take any measures against those booklets since the students were not caught red-handed. But we agreed as correctors to give a zero for students who use mobile phone language.”
Teachers Hamza al-Sharabi and his wife Majida at the Hamraa al-Sahim School (in the eastern badia), who were monitoring the exams in the region, were intercepted in their car by several students and their parents.
They started pelting the car with rocks. Sharabi tried to escape, but he was caught by another group that smashed his car and injured his wife. He was being punished for not allowing students to cheat.
Mrs. Sharabi spent almost a month in the Intensive Care Unit. Her medical report indicates that she was hit on the head with a blunt object, causing a deep wound in the scalp, severe bleeding, a broken skull, a blood clot in the brain, and severe concussion.
The Education Ministry counted 304 such assaults during the summer 2012 session of the secondary certificate exams, up on 185 assaults during the winter session.
Corruption Controls the System
A student taking the exam identified the clandestine camera I was carrying. He said he had used it before and knows about it very well, having worked for the state. This news spread around the hall in a matter of minutes.
Students and monitors tried to stop me from what I am doing. I was no longer welcome in the hall, especially when monitors found out that I already passed my Baccalaureates and began wondering about my identity.
They finally had what they wanted. As soon as I took out my cellphone containing the answers, I was apprehended and deprived from continuing the exams session, despite the fact that most other students in the hall were using their cellphones, without facing similar procedures.
Instructions given to examination hall head supervisors for the secondary certificate exams for the summer 2012 session state that any violation of the rules by monitors will lead to investigation and immediate dismissal:
– All monitors, including assistants and ushers, should hand over all cell phones to the head supervisor before the start of the exam session. They should not keep them for any reason whatsoever. If any of them refuse to hand over their cellphones, they are immediately relieved from monitoring. A replacement is requested from the directorate and a report is written about the incident.
– Standing at the hall’s doorway to monitor the head supervisor in order to allow a colleague to relay information to examinees or allow them to cheat is immediately investigated and perpetrators summarily excused from their post.
– Neglect of monitoring, standing in spots not designated for monitoring, or angrily answering student queries.
– Disregarding violations from participants which could disrupt the safety of the exams.
I went back to the Education Ministry one final time to retrieve my phone. I was never asked about its number or those of people who sent me messages related to the exams.
The ministry did not send me to General Security to investigate the source of the exam solutions leaked to my phone.
This report was prepared under the supervision of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).