The cost of an "A"

A student who himself secured 21 A's expresses his concern over the use of unfair means in exams-a common practice by students, he says. Read on...

I ran into an old high school acquaintance Mohsin last week. We decided to get together to catch up. He was in his second year of medical school, just starting, and was doing well for himself. Mohsin had never been, at least from what I remembered, a brilliant student, so it was a pleasant surprise when he told me that he had topped his first year exams. I was not only very happy for him but also quite curious as to how the transformation had taken place, and what he had done to score such excellent grades. He initially tried to pull a Sarah Palin on that one, but then caved. I was utterly shocked to hear what he said next, “Yar getting to the top is easy. I just paid some money, and got the papers out. I knew all the answers and then, if I wasn’t going to get the highest grade who was?”

Perhaps what was the most shocking was the fact that Mohsin was becoming a doctor, and that he would be seeing patients. What would the quality of his treatment be if he got through medical school by cheating? How many lives would be in danger? Cheating is something that exists, yes. However, it being so close to home was something I had not thought about before. I decided to investigate a little further. I conducted a face book survey, as an in-person survey would have made getting the right answers difficult due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.

The findings were as follows: out of 4,850 respondents 3,926 (almost a whopping 81percent) replied that they had cheated in an exam; 51 percent of them said that they had gotten the exam paper out, or at least seen someone getting an exam paper out, and five percent said that they cheated because their parents had forced them to. A good indicator at least was that a majority of them did think that cheating was wrong.

So, why do students cheat and why is it so easy for them to do so? First of all the problem stems from an over emphasis on "grades" in our society. Scoring good marks and good grades is important, but it does not signify the end of the world if a student gets anything below that. In real terms an A is meant for outstanding performance, a B is for an excellent performance and a C is for a good or average (by some measures) performance. The pressure that students face for A grades from parents, teachers and their peers forces them to abandon their morals and ethics and get into a win at all costs in the rat race. "XYZ's son got two A's, why didn't you?" is a phrase that is heard so commonly in many families. The schools aren't helping either as where schools need to encourage character development along with academic excellence, they are leading this A grade race. Just pick up a newspaper when results are coming out. You see mug shots of children with the number of As they have received on top of their heads. When has a school ever advertised that one of their students organised a fundraising event for the flood victims which raised over a million? When have parents too ever asked this of a school?

Secondly, marking systems in Pakistan all run in absolutes and not relatives which can make getting a good grade without cheating impossible at times. In the UK or the US, grades are not absolute, in the sense there is no 90 percent for an A. Performance is all relative on the basis of the class and itís performance. So, the top 20 percent band would be given an A, the next 20 percent a B and so on. Setting absolutes is unfair to the students because not all question papers are the same, nor all classes are taught in the same way. Relative marking ensures that all these auxiliary factors are excluded, and an A grade never becomes unattainable.

Thirdly, students are able to cheat because it is very easy for them to do so. Low salaries for teachers and auxiliary staff in schools is a breeding ground for cheating. The teachers and auxiliary staff trying to fulfil the needs of their household in times of such high inflation turn to helping students cheat to earn an extra buck. At other times it is not the corruption of any staff member, but negligence and weakness of the system that enables cheating. From the way exam papers are designed, stored, printed, distributed and marked gives a lot of opportunities to those who choose to exploit the weakness of the system.

The solution to these problems is two-pronged. One is to tackle the reasons which force students to cheat in the first place and the second is to remove opportunities for cheating too. A change of social attitudes must happen.

Parents must begin to encourage their children to study and not run after just an A because sometimes both donít mean the same thing. Teachers too need to do the same. Schools must be restricted from advertising grades and children in the way they do in newspapers and billboards. The focus should be on character building, developing leadership and encouraging students to participate in co-curricular activities. When teachers, parents and schools change their attitudes it will automatically reflect in the students as well.

We also need a very strong system of examinations in the country. Standardisation of best practices needs to take place. Opportunities for cheating need to be minimised. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. Cambridge, for instance, only allows its examiners to work on a question paper at a dedicated and secure computer which is not connected to any network. The printing happens through automated machines which not only just print but produce sealed packets of exam papers which are then opened on exam day. These processes are not at all expensive to implement, Such machines only cost a little more than an average photocopier but save much more in the long run. These best practices should also include random checks on test centres to ensure no cheating is going on.

As for Mohsin we had a very long chat after that meeting, and I can proudly say that he decided to go to the dean and tell him the truth. The dean is arranging for him to retake his examinations, and I am sure he will become a great doctor then right way. It is high time that we remember that the cost of an A should never be the mis-education of our children.

This article first appeared in The News. The writer is the youth-ambassador for Jang Group.


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