Hungary: A Testing Time

a testing timeBUDAPEST, Hungary | There’s a new joke going around Hungary: “Should I hand out the exam paper,” the teacher asks the students before the big test, “or does everyone already have a copy?” The gag ridicules a debacle that has rocked the country’s newly introduced system of exams for students finishing secondary school. This year the tests are more important than ever before, because they will also serve as university entrance exams. But questions – and in some cases answers – to three of the five required tests began appearing no later than 8 May, the eve of the first test. Although it is impossible to know how many of the 87,500 graduating students obtained the questions illegitimately, chances are that they form a majority.

And while the scandal may well cost the education minister his job, it will take some time to judge whether this year’s exam disaster will tarnish the government’s drive to transform the old-style, data-focused school system into a modern, competence-based one.

A Leak Becomes a Flood

The leaked questions were part of the school-leaving examinations Hungarian secondary school graduates take in early May. Passing the exam in literature, mathematics, history, and a foreign language, as well as one further subject chosen by the student, is a requirement for graduation from secondary school.

Traditionally, the exam week begins on a Monday with the literature test. But this year the questions appeared in the forum section of the Internet portal late on the evening of Sunday, 8 May. A news reporter for public television, Daniel Manhalter, also obtained a copy of the test. Some reports said test questions were being sold during the weekend.

The story did not break until after the testing, however, and the exam was held as planned. Most students did not have access to the questions prior to the exam – probably. And as Education Minister Balint Magyar said on Monday evening, knowing the questions in advance would not necessarily have been a big advantage: “You can’t learn to analyze poetry overnight,” he said.

On the same program, during which newscaster Szilvia Krizso handed him a sealed envelope containing a copy of the math exam due to be given the next day, he answered in the affirmative to a reporter who asked if the leaks might cost him his head.

Although scandals have marred the nationwide exam-taking ritual every year since 1990, the scale and importance of this year’s are unprecedented.

Real-world Testing

The exams this year were entirely new in form and function. They were meant to not only test student’s knowledge at the end of secondary school but serve as university entrance tests as well. And the kind of knowledge tested was different too. Rather than examining pupils on their retention of data, the exams were meant to stress the competencies needed for the fast-changing, unpredictable job market facing young Hungarians.

These are concerns for authorities across the region, still dealing with the rigid educational systems imposed by communist regimes on top of already-strict pedagogical practices dating to pre-democratic times. Poland introduced a similar exam reform this spring, and there too protests about the exam itself and suspicions of cheating emerged, although nothing like the scale seen in Hungary. Slovakia too brought in a new system of testing school leavers, and protests broke out there as well, with thousands of students calling for the education minister’s resignation and urging the government to abandon its plan to begin charging university tuition fees.

In Hungary, the exams this year were not only new, they were big: The literature test, for instance, rather than using questions short enough to be read out on television on exam day, as in the past, ran to 28 pages. The size of the test may also explain how it got leaked, because exam papers were printed in advance and delivered to schools, who were supposed to keep them locked up.

The math and history questions seem to have circulated widely before the exams. The questions for both exams, often together with their solutions, popped up on several websites and file-sharing systems.

Despite the growing awareness of the extent of the security breach, the math exam was held in its traditional Tuesday slot as scheduled, because the education ministry needed more time to decide what to do, Magyar said. On 11 May, however, after hearing reports of students knowing the questions in advance from more than 10 percent of schools, Magyar annulled the results of the test and gave most students the option of either re-taking the exam on 28 May or of using their final grade for the academic year – which is based on their performance throughout the year – as their exam grade. Those 30,000 pupils who need the math exam for university entrance will have to re-sit it.

The education ministry then made history – or at least a new history exam. Realizing that the leaks could not be stopped, Magyar ordered new questions for the history exam on 11 May and the language and other tests on the following two days. Minor glitches, but no serious problems were reported for the new tests. Testing will continue after a state holiday on 16 May. The media had a field day, filming sleepy school principals lining up with heavy police presence throughout the country to pick up the freshly printed and boxed history exam sheets early that morning.

The new exams are not only longer, but also contain exercises widely different from the traditional questions aiming to measure rote knowledge. The new history test, for instance, required students to analyze historical sources, graphs and flow charts, as well as a historical caricature of Marx. The literature exam, in addition to the usual analysis of a work of literature, contained an exercise for reading comprehension. The advanced-level test, taken by a small minority of students, asked them to write a mission statement for a website publishing the works of young writers and poets.

The other major change is that from this year on, the school-leaving exams double as university entrance exams. Where under the old system the school-leaving tests were seen as a rite of passage without any real consequences – in 2001 for instance, only 0.3% of students failed the math test – and a separate entrance test had to be taken for universities and colleges, this year achieving a good result can make all the difference with regard to higher education.

Don’t Blame the System

Magyar’s political head remained on his shoulders as this article was being written despite calls for his resignation or firing. The minister said he suspected the exam leaks had been politically motivated, noting that copies were sent to the media as well as distributed among students. As well, the education minister of the former conservative government, Jozsef Palinkas, was faxed copies of the exams in advance, after which he notified the ministry and the police.

Magyar also suggested the new exam system itself was not flawed, telling the weekly HVG, “Was the World Trade Center badly built? No. It just wasn’t designed for planes to land on it.”

Opposition parties put the blame on the government. The biggest, right-wing Fidesz, said the tests fell victim to the ministry’s cutting the budget for the exams and the subsequent relaxation of security measures to keep the printed papers under lock and key.

There were also attacks on Magyar for cancelling the results of the math test. A constitutional lawyer, Gyorgy Kollath, said the test could be annulled only by decree of the full government, and a parents’ association with right-wing ties said his decision was illegal because it was based on the assumption of collective guilt.

Students have also started organizing. While some threaten a demonstration against re-taking the math test and call for Magyar to go, others put the blame on the opposition, accepting the conspiracy theory about the political motivations behind the scandal. A call appeared on several websites for students to follow the examples of their Slovak colleagues, who when many were forced to re-take the nationwide math exam, showed up wearing sweatsuits instead of the customary suits and dresses as a form of protest.

While the series of exams is still under way, the state investigators are trying to track the leaks back to their sources. By 16 May the bureau said it had three suspects. One, a university student, was “somewhere midway in the chain” of leakers, not the source, his lawyer, Janos Banati, told public television. The suspects may be charged with breach of confidentiality, a crime that carries a sentence of up to three years in prison.




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