English exam copycats face computer checks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 November, 2000, 12:00am

PUPILS who memorise lines to help pass English language exams could in future be caught out by new computer software capable of picking out tell-tale words and phrases.

With a chief examiner suggesting that students who resort to learning a raft of phrases which can then be dropped into essays should be marked down, a debate over how heavy a penalty should be imposed has begun.

In a study, Copycatch software - designed by David Woolls of UK-based CFL Software Development - was used on six exam papers. It successfully spotted similar phrases and expressions, repeatedly used by students.

The programme uncovered the phrases 'summoning up all my courage', 'exerted all my energy', 'beating faster and faster', and 'my sole source of salvation' in all six papers.

Memorising is punished by deducting marks but some common phrases are often missed, so exam chiefs have called on the hi-tech support.

The students whose papers were used in the study have not been accused of cheating and none of the candidates was disqualified, according to secretary for the Hong Kong Examinations Authority (HKEA), Choi Chee-chong.

'Next year, if more than one script looks similar, we can use the [software] programme,' said HKEA chief examiner Graham Kennedy.

He stressed that the tool would only be used to enhance markers' awareness and the grading would still largely depend on their impression of a candidate's writing.

'Biology and chemistry are content-based subjects which require you to remember the facts, whereas, for language, there are no facts,' Mr Kennedy said.

'But if this year, 40 candidates write with the same expressions, I wonder if they really understand the language. Even a good writer can expect a heavy penalty if they're reproducing rather than using the language, their individual words.'

He believes private tutorial centres are teaching students a wide range of general expressions that can be easily inserted into an essay. Mr Kennedy says he has noticed that the use of memorised phrases, once the preserve of weaker students, has spread to brighter pupils.

However, Pauline Chow Lo-sai, a veteran English teacher, said: 'If the memorised expressions are used in the appropriate way, the candidates shouldn't be punished too heavily.

'Of course, it's another question if the entire essay is recited.'

She admitted model essays provided in text books and by private tutorial centres had discouraged students from developing originality of thought.

An Examinations Authority spokesman said: 'We don't have the legal capacity to investigate what the private tutorial centres are teaching the students.

'In any case, language is supposed to be original and memorising should be penalised.'