Thursday, August 05, 2004

Entrance examinations for institutes of higher education are in full swing in Armenia

The President’s office has set up a monitoring body to make sure that the admissions process is properly administered in an attempt to prevent corruption, namely people paying bribes for entrance.

For the last few years I have been monitoring the admissions process in Artsakh to better understand where corruption exists and why people feel the need to pay bribes? For the first time, this year, I took that knowledge and applied it on a small scale to protect the rights of three girls from Martuni, who decided that they would try out of the Music Conservatory in Yerevan.

For me this assignment could not have come at a better time, with not only the President’s office monitoring the process, but also the World Bank questioning if funds allocated for education were properly being used so education is ascertainable to the general populous on a level playing field. The outcome of the process would give me a much clearer picture of the real process so next year I can try to put into place a true monitoring body to do what clearly the President can’t do and that is to really create the level playing field that the World Bank is expecting.

My first step was to talk to former employees of the conservatory and students that have and are attending and persons who have applied and failed the entrance examinations. This information was plentiful and painted a very bleak picture of what education in Armenia is all about.

In short education today is all about who you know and how much of a gift (bribe) you are willing to pay. For the conservatory, there are 3 tests which one has to take.

In the case of the three girls from Martuni, all of who are trying out for the vocal section, the first test is connected to their specialty, this being a vocal test. To understand if this was done properly, I had the help of a vocal specialist, who stood under the window of the exam room and listened.

The vocal test is done in a non-transparent way today, meaning that during the days of the Soviet, all specialty tests were recorded so if there was a question of if it was properly administered, the actual test could be reviewed. Today, no one other than the person being tested and their accompanist is allowed inside the test room and there are no recordings (other than those done with very sensitive microphones held under windows). This is being done according to a former employee, so they can give whatever score they want to, based on who you know and what you paid, but in most cases, they don’t give you less than what you actually deserve, but you can purchase a higher score to win a spot over someone who in a fair competition would have beat you. Our findings showed all this to be true. Of our three girls, one got what she deserved and the other two got better than what they were entitled to.

The second and third tests are musical composition tests, the first being dictation. Two of our girls are trying for a spot in the Armenian Cultural Folk Music section and one for the Classical Music section. For the girls in the Armenian Cultural Folk Music section, they were given a dictation exam, to which the stronger of the two told me that she was amazed as to how simple the exam was, though she would be happy if she just got a passing grade. She also told me that our other girl wrote almost nothing. She said that the room was filled with students that had blank faces and it looked as if many would fail this exam.

The girl who is trying for the classical music section reported that in her exam room of 25 students, a couple including herself wrote something, but for the most part, examinees were turning in blank papers which had a few notes written on them. She also reported that there was an unbearable amount of noise in the room and no one from the staff to keep this under control (examinees humming).

I had a composition expert on hand to help me monitor the exams and playing back the recording of the exams I arranged, you would think that you were in a hornets nest. The specialist told me that she herself would have had a difficult time to concentrate and added that dictation requires an environment of silence. The specialist also pointed out that the piano player in the classical music dictation repeated the dictation 22 times, and the last note was played differently each time, making it impossible to decide if was a quarter, half or full note. She said this was probably done intentionally to make sure there was room in case an examinee who would get a perfect score could be marked down one point if need be so they could pass their person with a perfect score. When the exam let out, I witnessed some very sad faces of examinees who told me that they knew they failed.

The day following the dictation exam, I was expecting the results to reflect that at least 20 examinees had fail. To my surprise, there were only a hand full that failed, including the girl trying out for the classical music section. It was clear that what I was pre-warned about held true, which was that the dictation exam is written in pencil and for those who have connection or paid a bribe, those persons test were corrected and they were given a passing grade. This was confirmed as the other two girls had told me their parents established connections within the conservatory and their faith was already determined, where the girl who "failed the exam" was trying to be admitted on her own merit.

I paid a visit to the Dean of the conservatory the following afternoon to share with him my findings and to make a case for the girl who had been eliminated from the competition. As a rule, the Dean is not allowed to see anyone until the exams are completed, but the temptation of seeing a guest from America was an exception he could not resist (probably thinking I was there to give a gift or something), though I’m sure now he is wishing he had.

I presented my argument to the Dean and explained to him that there was a very serious technical violation in the way the test was administered which was clearly the fault of his staff. He immediately became defensive and asked me if I was there to see it for myself. I told him in a sense I was. He said that was impossible. I asked him if he would like to hear the recordings himself and had in hand on a CD of them. He asked me how I obtained the recordings, to which I told him it was better he didn’t ask that. He refused to listen to the recordings, but continued to listen to what I had to say. He asked that irregardless of the noise, did not everyone have the same exam and were test scores not determined on those tests? I said yes, and told him that many used their connections and gifts to obtain those scores. Instead of refuting my claims and asking me to present him with evidence to support my claims, he changed the subject and made me an offer for the girl who didn’t establish connections and failed the exam after telling me that even if he wanted to allow her to retake the exam, all exams were stamped and registered with the government.

In short, he offered to admit the girl as a pre-first-year student, but she will participate in the first year courses and will take exams as a first year student. The next year, she will once again take entrance exams, be admitted as a first year student and then in the second month of the school year, will be elevated to a second-year student. What this means is that she has been admitted as an unofficial first-year student not based on any test scores, but by the power the Dean has, meaning that if it was not me and some parent desperate to get their child in, they could give a few thousand dollars and get their child in as an unofficial first-year student (which is something a former employee told me does happen).

Now that I have a much better understanding of the entrance examinations, next year I plan to put together an official monitoring body that will hopefully level out the playing field so that students are admitted based on their abilities and not on who they know and how much they pay. Of course the Music Conservatory will once again be one of our targets. If there are any people who are interested in participating and plan to be in Yerevan around this time next year, contact me so you can be on the monitoring staff.

Yea, I could have made a huge stink about this, pulled out all the stops and got a few people fired in the end, but my intention this year was to better learn in a hands on way of what really happens, not based on what people told me happens, but what I discovered for myself (though what people told me was exactly what I discovered).

Oh and as for the Dean. Though he was on the defensive and we both raised our voices, in the end (as it always turns out), he was calling me Janig (my darling), gave me his private phone number, a firm hand shake and big smile when I left his office.

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