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Exam cheats send education system into turmoil

French Education Minister Luc Chatel wants prison sentences for those who leaked one of four baccalaureate math exam questions while critics are using the incident to reassess the entire examination process.


France’s minister of education, Luc Chatel, has vowed tough measures against those responsible for leaking one of the four questions in this year’s math baccalaureate exam, as two people have already been held for questioning.

The cheating incident is one of several in this year’s baccalaureate - a series of rigorous end-of-term exams one needs to pass in order to graduate from French secondary school and move into higher education – that have sparked a heated debate across the country.

“I hope the cheats will be punished,” Chatel told RTL radio, pledging up to three years behind bars for the culprits.

The "Bac" exams, as they are known in France, are administered at the same time across the country, with one single exam for all students and rigorous controls to prevent cheating.

But on Monday evening, on the eve of the exam, a photo of one of the math problems appeared on a video game website, France’s Education Ministry confirmed, adding that the photo was taken on a BlackBerry smartphone.

The flawed math exam was taken on Tuesday by 160,000 students. Chatel reaffirmed his decision to grade the tests based on the three remaining questions, and not invalidate it altogether, as many teacher unions and groups representing parents have demanded.

Raphael Mizrahi, a math teacher in the south-western city of Toulouse, said the leaked problem was the easiest of the four on the test, which is likely to negatively affect student’s overall scores.

“I think retaking the test would have been the best decision, the fairest, but that would be difficult and expensive to organise,” he said. On Thursday afternoon the mother of a student appealed Chatel’s decision to France’s highest administrative court.

According to Philippe Meirieu, a university professor and well-known educator in France, teachers are fighting an uphill battle against tech-savvy cheaters. “With the surge in new technologies we no longer know how to fight cheating, Meirieu told France Info radio.

Two new alleged incidents of cheating, this time the English and Physics bacs, emerged later in the week. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education said she could not confirm if more cheating had occurred.

The bac under examination

The compromised math exam gave credence to detractors of the baccalaureate who say the enormous weight given to the series of exams, which were first instituted more than 200 years ago, are out of touch with the times and ultimately a poor measure of acquired knowledge and skills.

“What should be under scrutiny today is the way we evaluate [students] and the organisation of the exam itself,” Philippe Tournier, a teacher's union leader told the daily Le Monde.

Many in France would prefer to see a new system that evaluates students throughout the year, and gives less weight to one final pass or fail baccalaureate. In fact, the term contrôle continu (continuous control) has become a catchphrase and battle cry for many education reformers.

However, the baccalaureate is more than just a test in France. While it is often a source of stress and even anguish to students and parents, the bac is forever revered by the French.

“[The bac] is a kind of initiation ritual, a rite of passage into adulthood for all French,” minister Chatel argued on Thursday, swearing to protect the institution. Though belonging to the reform camp, Professor Meirieu expressed a similar sentiment about the bac’s almost mythical status.

Meanwhile, other teachers defend the bac as the best way to strive for a equitable public education, one that demands and affords the same quality of learning to all citizens regardless of class or geographical location.

“It’s a standard that would not at all be the same with continuous controls,” explained Simon Perrier, a high-school philosophy teacher in the city of Chartres. “A system where each school decides its own standards would easily gloss over inequalities.”

According to Perrier, French public high-schools are not totally equal. But for the philosophy professor, the baccalaureate’s high standards exist so that students will not be cheated out of the best possible education.

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