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How China is catching cheaters on college access exams

The world's toughest exam has driven Chinese students to extremes, including suicide, but cheating will be a little tougher if a plan in Henan province, 400 miles south of Beijing, pans out.

The province plans to use drones, Digital Trends reports, not to look over students' shoulders, but to listen in for radio traffic between students taking exams and accomplices on the outside.

The National College Entrance Exam, known as “the gaokao,” is a make-or-break exam for nearly 10 million Chinese students each year.

Efforts to circumvent the exam have grown sophisticated. As Kotaku reported last year, some students have taken to embedding tiny cameras on their eyeglasses, which send the test images outside, so that answers can be relayed to them through an earpiece.

High-stakes testing, in which students or teachers find their careers or salaries on the line, have spawned a variety of cheating scandals here in the U.S. as well. This spring saw the conviction of nine educators in Atlanta who had systematically fudged test scores to bump their students across the finish line.

The Washington Post noted in April that the scandal "highlights what critics of standardized testing argue is part of the downside of relying on the test results to evaluate teachers, principals and schools: Pressure to perform can lead people to cross the line when their jobs or merit pay are at stake."

The Atlanta teachers used a No. 2 pencil and an eraser, but as China has found, cheating gets more sophisticated in the era of social media and microtechnology. This spring Pearson, the giant testing mega-corporation, made waves when it used sophisticated monitoring of social media to keep students from sharing test questions.

The Pearson flap emerged in in March, the AP reported, when a New Jersey school administrator emailed colleagues that a testing company had contacted the district at 10 p.m. one night asking them to look into a breach.

It turned out the student had posted a complaint about a question, but had not revealed the question or shown an image of it. The fact that the company was monitoring social media so aggressively set off a lot of parents and educators, many of whom were already upset about the heavy hand of testing in the classroom.

Pearson and its allies defended the oversight, arguing that any breach of the test security in social media risked compromising the tests for students yet to take them.

But as Nick Morrison noted at Forbes, the technological challenges of securing standardized against 21st Century Technology might lead one to question the whole concept, rather than simply double down on intrusive prevention.

"In more analogue times," Morrison wrote, "the risk of students passing information about the test to those in another state was minimal. But in the days of Facebook and Twitter trying to stop test questions getting out is like trying to block a colander with your fingers. It’s just not going to work."

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com