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Students free to 'cheat' at exams

Russia. The government has decided that it is time pupils were able to do things by the open book, reports Nick Holdsworth. Russian school-leavers sitting their final exams next month will have greater freedom than ever before to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

Open-book exams, a wide choice of written or oral papers and negotiable combinations of subjects, are intended to free teachers and students from what the government sees as the straitjacket of the Soviet past.

The reforms, announced last month by education minister Yevgeni Tkachenko, are the latest set of revolutionary changes to education since radical laws were introduced four years ago to develop child-centred teaching and learning.

The traditional leaving exam, a written or oral test in literature and mathematics, is regarded as inadequate for an economy struggling to come to terms with the sometimes harsh realities of the free market.

Testing the ability of students to learn and remember facts and then regurgitate them before a panel of examing teachers was an outmoded and inefficient mechanism for gauging aptitude, Mr Tkachenko said. But the ability of young people to demonstrate that they could apply knowledge and respond to change was essential.

Teachers should allow their students to take not only literary works - novels and poetry - into exams, but textbooks and dictionaries too, Mr Tkachenko said. "Testing the skills and sharpness of mind of the students is much more important than examining their ability to remember facts."

The ministry is now preparing official regulations to support what once would have been regarded as cheating.

Mr Tkachenko illustrated the flexibility of the new approach by referring to a school in St Petersburg where art was one of the locally-chosen compulsory final examinations. Teachers were initially taken aback when a student turned up with a guitar and his own composition for an "oral" exam, but then decided that testing the student's ability to compose, play and sign was as legitimate as expecting him to talk about the creative process of other artists.

Precise methods of examination would be left for regional authorities and schools to determine under the devolved management system introduced in recent years, Mr Tkachenko said. Federal regulations demanding term exams in each year of secondary school would be scrapped. Students would only take national exams when they were 15 and 17. Schools would be allowed to test through written, timed tests, oral exams and essays.

Other methods, such as agreeing project work with students, are also used in Russian schools, but continuous assessment has not yet caught on.

Rules governing university entrance exams will also be relaxed, allowing college candidates to sit tests in the spring and repeat them in the summer if necessary. Many schools and universities are establishing compacts to combine school-leaving and college entrance exams to encourage students to enter local institutions.

Regional headteachers, in Moscow to attend an international management seminar, said that Mr Tkachenko's announcement merely reflected established best practice around the country.

"These kinds of experiments have already been made by many schools around the country; Mr Tkachenko's announcement is a confirmation of reforms from the grassroots," Dania Akhmetova, general director of a school in Zelenodolsk, Tartarstan, said.

Vladimir Chupin, a head from the Volga city of Samara, said that welcome though the reforms were, what today's students most needed was wealthy parents. "Getting into good universities to study the prestigious professions - law, foreign languages, economics and medicine - is as much a matter of money as talent," he said.

Tanya Tarasova, a 20-year-old Moscow State University student, said she thought most school-leavers would welcome the shift to more flexible exams.

"When I was at school you had to study a whole book for your oral exam just to be given a numbered piece of paper indicating the paragraph you would answer questions on in the oral exam. You would do this and then the next day forget everything."

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