Before a High-Stakes Standardized Test, Uzbekistan Shut the Whole Country's Internet Down

One (very authoritarian) way to prevent cheating
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The facade of Tashkent State Pedagogical University (Adam Jones / Flickr)

Test-makers and test-takers are engaged in an eternal battle.

The test-takers want to look as good as possible, and therefore try to use any tool—any technology—to improve their scores. Test-makers, meanwhile, want all the takers to be on an even playing field. They want to limit this augmentation.

That’s why the College Board lays out an 800-word calculator policy, which includes a list of specific models that can be used on the SAT. And it’s why, too, the government of Uzbekistan shut down Internet to an entire nation last week.

As reported by the U.S.-sponsored broadcaster Radio Free Europe, the Uzbek government stopped all internal Internet traffic and SMS messaging last Friday, between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The government’s explanation cited “urgent maintenance work on telecommunications networks,” but the hours of the outage suspiciously overlapped with the administration of the nation’s university entrance exam. When the test was over, the web worked again.

This ‘surprise’ fix-it-up outage has become an annual tradition in the central Asian nation. Reported as early as 2011, it’s one of many efforts the government takes to tamp down cheating for the high-stakes test. While more than 431,000 young Uzbeks take the test, there are only 56,000 openings in the country’s universities, according to Radio Free Europe—which has led to an extensive culture of cheating and bribery around the test. Reports talk of “parachute” cheaters, who throw their tests from windows to informed correctors below, and cheating “bunkers,” secret rooms in schools where tests can be corrected before they’re graded.

While just shutting down the whole Internet is an admittedly extreme way to fight that culture, it’s not beyond the pale for the Uzbek government. The country blocks news websites and monitors its citizens’ web activity, as well as perpetuating serious human rights abuses—like arbitrary arrest and torture.

Of course, Friday’s outage doesn’t rise to that level. (Though it is a window into what authoritarianism looks like in 2014.) It’s a reminder, too, of the technologically determined nature of testing and standards-setting, wherever it occurs. According to the Radio Liberty report, an electronic market in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, had a big sign out front last week.

“Enter the exams with a pen only,” it said. “We have run out of mini-phones, use your head to take your exam.”

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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