Cheating and the cheated

Perhaps only in Japan could a young man be arrested for the crime of “obstructing university operations by fraudulent means.” For weeks, the nation’s headlines have been jammed with the story about a student who cheated on the entrance exam for four prestigious universities, Kyoto, Waseda, Doshisha and Rikkyo.

In most countries, cheating would hardly make the college newspaper, much less become a full-scale police investigation. The frenzy of interest and indignation is fueled by the exalted, iconic status of Japan’s entrance exams. Anyone bucking the system risks becoming a pariah, though for many, perhaps, this student may seem more like an anti-hero.

Whatever one’s personal reaction, the story reveals the need for changes in one of Japan’s most revered traditions — the university entrance exam. University administrators’ shocked, angry reactions need to be placed in the context of one simple fact — entrance exams are huge moneymakers.

Exams at private schools run ¥30,000 apiece. Each day’s exam can attract one or two thousand test-takers, with students often sitting for separate exams in different departments. With 500,000-some total examinees throughout Japan each year, the outlines of a sizable, profitable industry emerge. One should also add prep schools, such as the one this student attended, all dedicated to one single goal — getting into college.

Families can spend ¥100,000 to ¥200,000 a month on prep school tuition, sometimes all the way from primary school to that dream moment of passing. It is no surprise the student did not want to fail. He knew he could not afford to.

Some newspapers reported the student remarking that “I was stressed out.” In that, he was not alone. The grueling system pressures students to perform rather than learn deeply or think critically. Unfortunately, the challenges these students will face in the future will not be reducible to a-b-c-d choices or easy-to-memorize formulas.

The current exam system reinforces an excessive focus on outcome, which is one lesson this student seemed to have understood, perhaps too well.

Cheaters should not be coddled. Tests have rules, and this student clearly broke those rules, but the quandary over this incident is similar to another piece of front-page news — WikiLeaks.

In both cases, the alleged crime involved exposing secrets through technology. Despite other differences between the two cases, critics of the student’s actions seemed shocked that a test-taker would engage in “wrongful use of the Internet.” Yet, the Internet is used for all purposes with greater efficiency and simplicity as technology marches forward. This student is hardly the first one to misuse technology. Nor will he be the last.

The saddest part of the story may be that the student was naive enough to imagine he could not be tracked down. Every teacher knows that most cheaters unconsciously want to be caught. The student received instantaneous answers from the online question-answering site, Chiebukuro, which claims 27.5 million regular users.

Those answering the posting helped him cheat without knowing, but in the future, less traceable sites could easily be set up, if not already.

One important reality was revealed along with those few test questions. Universities, whether public or private, are not run on the basis of transparency. The process of creating exams is tightly guarded. The results of some exams are released later on request, but individual test-takers are never allowed to view their own results. Social status and political power often rely on secrecy. Universities are no exception.

The solutions are not easy, but universities need to reconsider their process of selection for admissions. Searching students for cell phones, refusing toilet breaks and increasing the number of proctors is not going to solve this problem. The pressures are too great and the belief that getting into a good school will lead to certain success is too deeply founded.

After this student is punished, appropriately, and the furor dies down, the system will still need change. Test questions that require too much thought or creativity to be hastily typed into a cell phone would be a good place to start. The one-test-fits-all approach no longer corresponds to how students learn and what they need to know.

Some universities are already starting to consider high school grades, outside activities, recommendations, interviews and essays as alternatives to the paper-based, multiple-choice exams. One cannot text for help during an in-person interview.

Until substantial changes take place, there will continue to be cheaters, not all of them caught, and the exam system will continue to be revered and feared as one of the most intense experiences in Japanese life.

Finding better ways to select students would help the entire educational system focus on what should be the real task at hand — learning thoroughly, critically and, dare it be mentioned, pleasurably.