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In Tunisia, a Strange Case of Switched Scores

TUNIS—When a student’s whole academic career depends on a single national test, the student’s life can take sudden ups and downs. So it was with Faten Al-Semry.

She did not pass the principal session of the baccalaureate, the test at the end of secondary school required for admission to university, so she sat for a retest. Final results were announced in early July and she was very happy to hear she had passed and earned the Tunisian Baccalaureate, or Examen National du Baccalauréat, bearing the seal of the Ministry of Education.  But in October, she was asked to return the certificate. She was told that “she had not passed the exams.”

Faten specialized in economics, in a private institute in Sidi Bouzid, in Southern Tunisia. Faten’s case was widely discussed on social media. Many people saw her as a victim and said the ministry was not fair.

Faten said in an interview that “I am still shocked and do not understand what happened. Upon receiving my certificate, I was happy with my success and decided on a career and chose a university.” ” She said that she could not study in any university inside or outside Tunisia. She decided never to go back to school again.

Faten said she would not return the certificate to the Ministry of Education because it was not her fault. “I really feel lost and frankly do not know what to do,” she said. “I want to keep the certificate, but my father is forcing me to give it back to the Ministry because it is not my right and is not deemed legal.”

The general director of the ministry’s examination department, Mr. Omar Al-Welbany, in an hour-and-a-half interview, gave a different perspective on Faten’s story. He said the case was one of 800 or 900 complaints the ministry gets each year about the exam results.

Mr. Al-Welbany said that after the exam results were announced, a student at the same institute and in the same specialty as Faten, presented an appeal to the Education Authority in Sidi Bouzid to review his score in economics. Although he had passed the exam in the second session, he had not received any score on his transcript. In response to his claim, the Authority contacted the General Department of Examinations, which in turn gave its directions to start an investigation.

On the examinations board, there is a group responsible for secretly transferring the students’ code numbers through an electronic system.  This group logged onto the system to search for the testing center in which the complaining student’s exam was marked. Tests are graded in different centers than where they are taken to prevent anyone from tampering with the scores.

The group identified the center where the complainant’s exams were marked. But to everyone’s surprise, the student himself had written the wrong number, and that number was Faten’s number. “his score was given to Faten. She  passed and he failed. The General Director of the Examinations Department displayed the documents supporting this switch.

But the student was not informed about his score and Faten was not immediately asked to return her certificate. “We have to open an investigation in the matter, as there could be an arranged mutual consent between the two students. There could be a possibility of cheating,” , said Al-Welbany. Eventually, he said, the investigation found out that Faten did not attend the exam, and that is how they are quite sure the score is not hers. She had reaped the fruit of someone else’s effort, noting that attending the second round of exams is optional and not obligatory.

Al-Welbany “We do not only hear one party, even if we have all documents and proof, we have to talk to the student and thus we asked the General Department for Administrative and Financial Affairs to question the student.” He said Faten admitted she did not sit for the exam and was surprised with her score, but preferred to hide her head in the sand.

After making sure that Faten did not pass and earned a certificate that does not belong to her, the Legal Department of the Ministry of Education called Faten to ask her to return it. The General Director of the Examinations Department told us that Faten’s father gave them the certificate and all the copies. “I respect Faten’s father,” Al-Welbany said “I understand how difficult it is to be put in this position as a father, but he was understanding and thanked us for our efforts and forced his daughter to give us back the certificate, which was not her right to keep.”

The Tunisian case seems to echo an ancient saying. A nineteenth-century American judge once wrote, echoing the Greek dramatist, Euripides, that “The Millstones of Justice turn exceedingly slow, but grind exceedingly fine.”


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