News & Reports

Iraqi Cheating Scandal Triggered by Militia Visits

Some Iraqi students have been caught up in a cheating scandal after armed militia fighters showed up at about 60 exam centers in western Baghdad bearing the answers to questions on a national test.

The test determines which universities students can go to. At some of the exam centers, administrators chased off the fighters, calling the police.

Now the Ministry of Education has thrown out the results from all of the centers where the fighters showed up and the parents of students who didn’t cheat are angry that their children must retake the test. Like many conflicts in Iraq, the tensions are across sectarian lines.

Many of the exam centers were in Sunni Muslim neighborhoods at time when radical Sunni militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have challenged the Shiite Muslim-dominated Iraqi central government in Baghdad and taken control of much of the north of the country.

Angry parents demonstrating against the Ministry of Education’s action sparked a riot on July 15 that one witness said left a parent dead.

“We ask for justice,” said Saba Ali, a professor of medicine at the Arab American University in Baghdad, whose teenager attends Al-Mutamayizat, a school for gifted girls in Karkh, a district on the western side of the Iraqi capital. “We started preparing for this year since June 2013, taking private lessons in the summer.”

The exam centers are located in high schools, though students don’t necessarily take exams where they also attend classes.

Some students and exam centers welcomed the fighters in hopes of achieving high scores that would let them advance onto the country’s most selective programs, said Iraqi news reports.

Others—like Ali’s daughter—were in exam centers where administrators repeatedly called police to ward off the militia members.

“The headmistress refused to let them enter,” said Ali. “The guards at the center quarreled with them. The fighters didn’t use their weapons. They left the site as the police came.”

Despite the administrators’ resistance, however, the Ministry of Education disqualified test results from all centers visited by fighters.

“We told them, ‘We don’t need your help—leave our daughters alone.’ They said ‘We want to help you,’” said Ali, referring to the militia members. “Our daughters are not guilty in this. It is a collective punishment.”

Ali said she was at the riot where she saw a police officer shoot and kill a parent. She said Shiite militias instigated the violence by provoking an altercation between the parents—who were a mix of Sunni and Shiites and other sects—and police.

Education Ministry officials have offered students an opportunity to take new exams in mid-August and early September.

“It is necessary to solve this in a way that will not violate the rights of any student,” Hayder Al-Abadi, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s Islamic Call Party, told Al-Sabah Newspaper.

But some students planned not to take the ministry up on its offer.

“We don’t want a second chance,” said Zahraa Namir Hashim, 18, a student at Al Mustaqbal, a high school for girls at Al-Saydiyah, a neighborhood in western Baghdad. “We want our grades determined. They can recheck the answers. It will be clear who cheated and who studied. The grades of students who write their answers based on knowledge and understanding will be different from those who cheated. It is unfair to generalize that everyone was cheating.”

Hashim also noted that the ministry’s actions raised a host of unanswered questions that has her reluctant to take new tests.

Education officials accused Christians of cheating on Islamic studies exams they would not have taken, for example, which she believes illustrates how the ministry was simply tarring everyone as a cheater in certain exam centers. Alternatively, it’s not clear if Shiite officials in the central government were clumsily seeking to target Christians to divert attention from their suspected targeting of Sunnis. “We are the victims of a political game,” she said.

Ali also questioned if her daughter would perform well even if she retook the exams.

“The problem is that my daughter is psychologically exhausted now,” said Ali, who now wasn’t sure if and when her child would attend university in the fall. “An entire year of my daughter’s life might be lost.”


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