The installation of cameras during Moldova’s notoriously corrupt graduation exams raises hackles in one ethnic community.by Natalia Ghilascu 13 June 2013
CHISINAU | For the first time in Moldova, high school graduation exams this month are being monitored with cameras in a bid by the Education Ministry to stem cheating. The move has set off debate across the country, but it has been particularly unpopular in Gagauzia, an autonomous area in the south with a predominantly ethnic Turkish population.
Gagauzia is Moldova’s poorest region, and its schools’ performance in general has lagged behind that of the rest of the country. Still, officials in the region have resisted the installation of cameras. Most stop short of suggesting that cheating should be allowed, but they argue that students in Gagauzia need some advantage given that they tend to perform poorly on the Romanian-language exam. In recent years, however, those students have actually done better on that exam than their peers nationwide – though whether cheating played a role in that performance is anyone’s guess.
THE CLEANUP CREW
The move to install cameras in the country’s 100 testing centers comes two years after 170 exams were disqualified. Some were identical to one another, while some had been written by someone other than the test-taker. Nearly 30,000 students take the exams each year.
Last year, then-Education Minister Mihail Sleahtitchi said students’ parents were paying bribes worth $20 to $800 per exam to school administrators, who accepted the money as ostensible payment for organizing the tests but who were really arranging for the students to be allowed to cheat.
During last year’s exams, a hotline set up by the country’s anti-corruption agency logged 15 complaints about cheating. Since exams began on 4 June this year, the agency has received 12 complaints.
Maia Sandu became education minister last July with a remit to tackle corruption. Sandu, whose CV includes stints at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the World Bank, announced the plan for monitoring cameras this spring, at a price tag of $415,000.
On the first day of this year’s exams, 5,000 students who speak one of Moldova’s minority languages – Russian, Gagauz, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian – sat a test on Romanian, the state language. The cameras uncovered 65 cases of students copying from one another’s papers, according to Deputy Education Minister Igor Grosu. On the next exam, on Romanian for native speakers and on foreign languages for all other students, about 200 students were caught cheating.
Grosu said that while students were seen copying on camera, the exam proctors were reading newspapers. The proctors were warned by the Education Ministry and could be replaced, he said. He also encouraged students not to “contribute” toward the cost of holding the exams, which is covered by the government.
MAKE US GOOD, BUT NOT YET
Still, what might seem like steps in the right direction have not been universally welcomed.
In April, members of Gagauzia’s legislature voted to prohibit the national government from installing cameras in the region’s exam centers. The gesture was symbolic as the regional lawmakers lacked the authority to bar the cameras, and local officials backtracked after the Education Ministry threatened not to issue diplomas to any students who took the exams in centers that lacked cameras.
The Gagauz account for about 4 percent of Moldova’s 3.6 million people and live mostly in the south. The Gagauzia region has enjoyed autonomy since 1994.
What officials there say worries them the most is the region’s students’ poor command of the Romanian language. About 72 percent of the Gagauz speak Gagauz, a Turkic language, most often. Virtually all of the rest usually speak Russian.
Russian is the language of instruction in all of the region’s 25 high schools, with Romanian taught only as a foreign language. A series of graduation exams is offered in June in the student’s language of instruction, except for an exam on Romanian.
But for all the concern, students from Gagauzia have done comparatively well on the Romanian exam. In 2012, the failure rate for the region’s students was 2.4 percent compared with 7.5 percent for all students in Moldova.
Still insisting on its own students’ disadvantage, two years ago Gagauzia began to issue its own diplomas based on results of all the exams except that for the Romanian language. Though the documents are not recognized by the Moldovan Education Ministry, students could use them to enroll in some universities in Russia or Turkey. They could then sit the Romanian exam in a subsequent year if they wanted to earn an official Moldovan diploma.
Meanwhile, the Education Ministry issues such students certificates of completion for secondary school that allow them to apply to vocational and professional schools in Moldova.
School administrators in Gagauzia say the curriculum’s mandatory 32 hours of monthly instruction in Romanian do not prepare their students for the exam. A regional education official has suggested making the Romanian exam oral instead of written or simply giving students longer to complete it.
Maria Gherganov, a teacher at a high school in Gagauzia, said students in the region don’t have the proper conditions for learning Romanian, but she said those from her school who have managed to enter universities in Chisinau mastered the language well enough when given the chance.
The supposedly dim prospects for passing the Romanian-language exam are also pushing more Gagauz students to study at universities in Transdniester, the primarily Russian-speaking breakaway region of Moldova, according to Demian Karaseni, vice president of the Gagauzian legislature.
“In a few years, Gagauzia will lose more and more students,” he warned.
Other members of the regional legislature have complained that the money for cameras would have been better spent on refurbishing the region’s worn-down schools. And one said the country’s rural schools are not yet ready to meet “European” standards.
But given students’ relatively solid performance on the exam, Sleahtitchi, the former education minister, suggested that the hand-wringing in Gagauzia was really a backdoor protest against having a Romanian-language exam at all.
Genuine or not, concerns about performance and other issues, including the stress caused by the cameras, must be subordinate to the need to clean up the graduation exam, Deputy Education Minister Grosu told the region’s teachers and school administrators at a public meeting in March.
Grosu said images from the cameras would be checked only when there is reason to believe some students had cheated, such as when some exam papers show suspicious similarities. As for stress, he said cameras were a better alternative to the police officers who were called in at some test centers last year to watch students.
Not everyone in Gagauzia’s schools is against the installation of cameras. Eugenia Bulgaru, a Romanian-language teacher in the town of Vulcanesti, said the issue is simply one of preparation.
“In our school there’s no resistance to the cameras because all the students have always gotten good marks, with no failures on the exams, compared with others where the exam preparation is not sufficient,” she said.
“I hope this year the exam supervisors will try to be more disciplined,” Bulgaru said, recounting instances where the proctors actually passed along papers with correct answers to test-takers from friends outside the exam room. Sometimes the proctors even sowed confusion by handing the papers to honest students who had the same names as those who were cheating, she added.
In the end, officials in Moldova need to be more concerned about the quality of education than the comfort of students, or of the teachers who may have poorly prepared them for exams, said Ghenadie Mocanu, an expert on education policy at the IDIS Viitorul think tank in Chisinau.
“Monitoring cameras are just one of the conditions for exams that could help make everyone more responsible,” Mocanu said. “We should ally ourselves with EU countries and European educational policies, where cameras are something normal, not even a cause of stress.”