China’s students have apparently developed skills for building cheating devices to use during an SAT-like exam that look like they have been pulled straight from a James Bond movie.
Ahead of China’s massive college entrance exam — the Gaokao — that took place on Saturday and Sunday, local media outlets released photos of cheating devices confiscated by police around the country in recent weeks.
The photos show intricate cheating equipment, a majority of which were created by students in the southwestern city of Chengdu before taking a different test, the National Professional and Technological Personnel Qualification Examination.
Around 40 students, all originally from Shanghai, were reportedly caught with the devices, which were disguised to look like everyday objects.
Some of the uncovered equipment included miniature cameras installed into both a pen and a set of glasses, as well as wireless earphones resembling small earplugs. In one instance, a grey tank top was wired with a plug capable of connecting to a mobile phone that could be used to send out information. There was also a camera installed in the shirt.
“Cheating happens in every country, but it’s extremely rampant in China," Yong Zhao, the presidential chair at the University of Oregon's College of Education, told VICE News. "This isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last.”
“Standardized tests tend to be the only way for upward social mobility, and passing the test has been a way to change people’s lives.”
Cheating has been an enduring issue in China, where the emphasis placed on standardized tests can create high-pressure environments.
“For over a thousand years China has been using tests,” Zhao said. “Standardized tests tend to be the only way for upward social mobility, passing the test has been a way to change people’s lives.”
Ahead of this year’s exam, which was taken by nearly 9.4 million students across the country, Beijing was preparing to send police out to monitor and handle cheating incidents. In fact, students practically expect to be able to cheat on exams. During protests last summer against a crackdown on Gaokao cheating, students chanted, "We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat."
The Gaokao is China’s SAT or A-level equivalent, with many students' chances at matriculating into college reliant on their exam results. One of this year's essay questions from a Shanghai version of the test translated into English reads: "You can choose your own road and method to make it across the desert, which means you are free; you have no choice but finding a way to make it across the desert, which makes you not free. Choose your own angle and title to write an article that is not less than 800 words."
The difficulty and importance of the test can result in an intense environment for studying and exam preparation. In 2012, photos surfaced of students hooked up to amino acid drips while they were studying. Boarding schools, sometimes called "Gaokao sweatshops," have developed that implement strict study schedules to prepare their students for the tests.
At one such school, Hengshui High School, classes span from 5:30AM and last until around 10PM. The day is strictly scheduled from start to finish with classes, breaks, study periods, down time, and extracurriculars. Students are not allowed to have cell phones and are given one vacation day a month. Classrooms at the school are equipped with cameras to track any students who might be slacking off.
"I usually spent three to five minutes eating dinner," Sun Yaijian, a graduate of Hengshui, told the China Daily about his study regimen. It’s common for students to cut their mealtime short in order to fit in more studying.
Considered the country's top secondary school, last year Hengshuil sent 104 students into the country’s top two universities. An estimated 4,000 students at the school took the Gaokao exams this year.
“Imagine in the US if all universities began to admit students simply on how they ranked on the SAT,” Zhao said. “When you have one criteria to select students you are always going to run into these problems because the stakes are so high.”
He said the government and Chinese people have tried to implement changes by taking pressure off of how students are evaluated and diluting the importance of standardized testing, but these efforts have not been very successful.
Zhao expressed concern that countries like the US, for example, may be taking cues from China by placing more emphasis on high stakes standardized testing. He says outsiders see the Chinese education system as one of meritocracy — but, he says, it only values meritocracy in testing, and not in other areas.
"Test scores are a very poor measure of a person's future, they're a very poor measure of a country's future," he said.
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB