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Exam Fail: Leaked Questions Burn Whistle-Blowing Russian Teacher, Not Cheaters

Russia's government says recent national graduation exams went off without a hitch, despite evidence that questions were leaked in advance.

An award-winning teacher in St. Petersburg is facing a test of his own after doing what he thought was a favor to his fellow educators and principled students across Russia.

Math teacher Dmitry Gushchin uncovered evidence that questions to a key section of this year's national high-school graduation exam had been published in advance on the Internet.

In response, the Russian state agency charged with administering the Unified State Examination (YeGE) said on June 6 that it will sue Gushchin.

"We are preparing the necessary lawsuit so that in the future no one would disgracefully make such unconfirmed statements at the moment of the most important event in the life of every school student," said Sergei Kravtsov, director of the Federal Monitoring Service for Education and Science, known as Rosobrnadzor.

Gushchin, who was Russia's Teacher of the Year in 2007, argues that the incident and the government's response point to a major systemic problem with far-ranging consequences.

Such a failure would mark the latest blow to the foundations of academic integrity in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, who has been accused of cheating on his own dissertation in the 1990s and was a driving force behind the idea of the new, standardized national test.

I'm not going to argue about the meaning of the word 'leak.' I'm just saying that before the exam a list of 30 questions appeared that, to a significant extent, matched what was on the exam."
-- Math teacher Dmitry Gushchin

"The main problem is not that a certain number of students cheated on the examination," Gushchin told RFE/RL, acknowledging that it's "a huge personal tragedy for the children and their parents and teachers" when "unscrupulous students" beat out honest, hard-working applicants for university spots.

"But we face an even greater problem with the overall attitude of students who are still in school. The leaks give them a completely incorrect focus."

Gushchin emphasized his point in a post on the VK social-media site:

"Either society is set up so that you have to study in school and so that smart and honest people get into institutes, or it is set up so that success means buying stolen questions on the Internet a week before the examination."

Do The Right Thing?

On May 31, Gushchin posted on VK that he had been informed that questions from the second, most heavily weighted, section of the YeGE mathematics examination had appeared on the Internet. He said that such information appears almost every year and each year it turns out to be false.

Crucially, he also posted some of what he was seeing online the day before the test as evidence that it was available in advance.

On June 2, the day after the mathematics exam, more than 400 people commented on a separate Gushchin post on VK. They confirmed that some or all of the leaked questions had appeared on their test, although some in slightly altered forms. Each year, the test varies from time zone to time zone to prevent the students who take it first from informing their colleagues to the west.

"I think it is really important that Rosobrnadzor, instead of issuing daily statements denying these materials reached any students, should be seriously thinking about how the questions for various time zones could end up in a single list and how it ended up on the Internet," Gushchin told RFE/RL.

The leak allowed some people to prepare ahead of time. And when it comes to admission to medical school, a few points can be decisive."
-- Karina, a student from St. Petersburg

All of the students from several Russian regions contacted by RFE/RL confirmed that at least some of the questions on their examination were on the list that Gushchin published. (All of them asked that their names be changed to avoid repercussions.)

Dmitry, a student in the Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, said several of the questions on his exam broadly matched the leaked questions, although some of the precise numbers were different.

He said that in his preparation for the exam, he worked through at least 50 of the sample questions that are on the YeGE website.

"But nonetheless, there were several questions on the test that I'd never seen before," he added. "It turns out that a person who studied for six months for the exam could be less prepared than someone who saw [Gushchin's list] the day before he sat for it."

Sergei, from Vladivostok, said five of the questions from his exam matched the leaked paper. He said several contained subtle tricks that would be much easier to handle if the questions were known in advance.

There have been other reports of leaks from the chemistry portion of the YeGE. Those questions and the solutions were reportedly posted on Telegram and VK ahead of the test.

Karina, a student from St. Petersburg, said she heard about the leak after she took the exam and, when she checked it out, the questions matched her exam exactly. There was one question, she noted, about electrolysis that she had never seen before in any of the preparation materials or old exams. However, it appeared in the leaked material exactly as it was on her test.

"Chemistry is a key subject for entry into medical schools," Karina said. "There is a lot of competition, and a lot of people who get in have maximum points. The leak allowed some people to prepare ahead of time. And when it comes to admission to medical school, a few points can be decisive."

'This Is Just Sophistry'

Gushchin suggested the testing authorities were stuck in denial in a way that ignores the concerns of students like Karina in a hypercompetitive environment.

"Rosobrnadzor says there was no leak because a leak means that the published material corresponds to the test 100 percent," Gushchin said. "They claim that all these questions are of a 'type' and variations appear in all sorts of preparatory programs. But this is just sophistry. I'm not going to argue about the meaning of the word 'leak.' I'm just saying that before the exam a list of 30 questions appeared that, to a significant extent, matched what was on the exam.... These problems were not in any open databases."

The Russian government under Putin has been accused of undermining academic integrity in the past and of turning a blind eye to strong evidence of corruption. A group of U.S. academics in 2006 documented extensive plagiarism in Putin's own graduate dissertation. In addition, there have been credible claims that Putin's dissertation was written by the head of St. Petersburg's National Mineral Resources University, which conferred Putin's degree.

When asked about the charges, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said: "There is nothing to comment on here."

The nongovernmental organization Dissernet has documented dissertation plagiarism cases involving many Duma deputies, Russian government officials, and leading businesspeople. Based in part on Dissernet's work, more than 20 top members of the Russian Academy of Sciences signed a petition in October 2016 calling for Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky to be stripped of his academic degree because his dissertation "stands outside the realm of scholarship."

A few days later, Russia's Higher Attestation Commission dismissed the allegations and upheld Medinsky's degree.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Alina Pinchuk