Treat exam cheats firmly - and consistently

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 3:09am

Cheating in examinations cannot be tolerated. It defeats the purpose of fair performance assessments and is an injustice to those who achieve through genuine effort. That is why severe punishment is needed as a deterrent. Nonetheless, there are students who cannot resist the temptation. To uphold fairness and integrity, the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority has rightly adopted a tough stance against acts of dishonesty.

But doubts were raised over the way the authority handled students caught for plagiarism in an assessment project for the Diploma of Secondary Education this year. Modern College invalided the scores of three students after they were found to have copied from the internet without citation. The score made up one-fifth of the grade. The incident prompted the authority to conduct random checks and another 23 students were caught. The students said the teacher had told them citation was not needed. But the school denied responsibility, saying it lacked resources to verify their work.

Unlike the school, which only nullified the assessment part, the authority, in line with its previous practice, punished the 23 by stripping their entire scores in the subject. The different punishments inevitably caused a dispute. The authority later agreed to a review and reduced the penalty.

Punishment should be proportional to the gravity of the offence. That the authority and schools impose different penalties for cheats is troubling. The authority argued that it would be unfair for the 23 students to receive a harsher punishment for the same mistake as the three only because they were caught by the examination body, not by the school.

It has to be asked why the same wrongdoing is punished in different ways. An overhaul is needed.

Fair exam assessments are of paramount importance; so is punishment to deter rule-breakers. It is dangerous if this decision is seen as setting a precedent for leniency. Students must not be given the impression that cheating can be excused.