What happened to the UPSR back-up papers?

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PETALING JAYA: Many questions over the recent leaks of UPSR examinations, which have affected over 400,000 children, have raised a host of security issues. But one question that has yet to be asked is: “What happened to the back-up papers?”  Sources tell The Edge Financial Daily that there are supposed to be three sets of examination papers so if there is a leak, the back-ups are used. This means the exam can proceed and students will not have to wait a month to re-sit their papers as in the current case.

In 2004, there was a leak during the Bahasa Melayu SPM examinations in Sarawak which affected the whole country. Yet the authorities immediately mitigated the issue without raising a ruckus. A former senior assistant who was a Selangor Examination Area Inspector at that time said she was called up in the middle of the night to secretly go to Port Klang to receive the new set of examination papers on the eve of the examinations.

“I received a call in the middle of the night informing me of what had happened. I was instructed not to tell my husband or my family members about ... what had occurred. It was all very hush-hush and we were escorted by traffic police.  I was not allowed to bring any mobile devices. The traffic police escorted us from Port Klang [where the papers were received from a ship] to the various vaults  in our area where we covertly changed the papers.

“Not even the schools’ Examination Chiefs were aware that an exchange had occurred in the middle of the night. And it was a nationwide operation — in the span of one night all the original papers were switched to the back-up copies without any outsiders’ knowledge,” said the former civil servant.

Teachers: Impossible for leak to happen at our end

Another senior assistant believes leaks could only occur at the printers or during the distribution stage, as tight security measures prevent any leaks occurring after the papers have been loaded onto the various delivery vehicles.

The teacher, who served as an Examination Area Inspector for a decade, said the procedures for delivery of national examination papers are designed to address all security issues.

During the UPSR, each district will be headed by a Senior Examination Area Inspector (SEAI) — usually a civil servant from the District Education Office. He is assisted by a few Area Inspectors (AI) who come from the ranks of school senior assistants. The SEAI and the AI in turn monitor a number of schools (two to three for the SEAI and about five for the AI and the Examination Chiefs).

The Examination Chiefs are assisted by invigilators. These are the officials who receive the examination papers about one week prior to the examination date. The delivery vehicles are normally escorted by the police to a school that has been designated “the vault” for a particular district. Depending on the number of schools in the district, there could be as many as two or three vaults.

“The papers are collected in the vault and during the handover, the SEAI, checks each package [without opening it] and endorses it. Each paper has a special thread as a seal. We never accept the package if the seal has been broken or we believe it to have been tampered with,” he said.

The papers are then locked in the vault. The key to the vault is held by the SEAI while the code to open the vault is held by another AI.

“A few days after the papers have been locked in the vault, we conduct a box opening operation observed by the SEAI, the AI and the Examination Chiefs. These papers are then distributed. The SEAI and AI will endorse the papers with their signatures. The vault is then locked and is only re-opened on the examination day at 6.15am at the earliest, and by 7am the vault is locked up again.

“The SEAI and his AIs take turns [in pairs] to oversee the vault. These overseers are changed every day,” he said.

The primary school senior assistant also questioned the length of time the government has taken to address the fiasco. “Logically ... it should not be taking them this long ... unless they never prepared the back-up questions in the first place.”

Leaks possible in rural areas?

A Terengganu school improvement specialist coach discounted the possibility that leaks could occur on islands or in rural areas as the examination papers are kept in a police lock-up.

“For the hard to reach areas ... the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) takes the bundles by boat and delivers them straight to the police stations in the respective districts. [The papers] are kept in a lock-up until the day of examination. And we do not accept any papers [with broken seals] or [which have been] tampered with,” she said.

A former headmaster and SEAI said there are two possible ways for the UPSR leaks to have taken place.

“One is at the Malaysian Examination Syndicate (MES) level when the questions are finalised and sent for printing. The other is when the papers are taken out of school vaults and taken to the classrooms,” he said.

The former headmaster said a leak could happen anywhere within the MES as the papers are handled by many officers, including those working with the printers. “It was harder back then when there were no handphones but now it’s so easy. Just snap a picture and send. No need to take the actual paper out.”

This could be one of the ways question papers started circulating on social media days before the examinations. It must be noted that photos of actual papers were circulating, and not just the usual spot questions.

“Another possible weak point is when the question papers are taken from the vaults and before they reach the classrooms, the seals are broken,” he said. The inspector said not all schools have vaults and so have to share the facility with nearby schools. “Those transporting the papers have the opportunity to make a small cut in the sealed plastic bags and take out a question paper. This can be easily hidden and they can then open the seal in front of the class.” he said.

The inspector said places where this could happen are on small islands where question papers are sent several days earlier or even in remote areas of Sabah and Sarawak.

Could a leak occur during the setting of questions?

Another senior assistant in the Klang Valley, who has set questions for the SPM, said it is unlikely leaks could have occurred at the question setting stage because excess questions are set.

“I don’t even know when the questions I set are used. Sometimes they are used this year, sometimes next year. But what I do know is everything is done secretly ... We are taken to a secret location where we cannot leave for 10 days and 10 nights, and no outsiders are allowed to come in ... they took away my handphone, handbag and other items they believed could undermine security. We are given laptops and anything else we need to prepare the questions. That year, I had to prepare about 40 questions,” said the teacher.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 3, 2014.