BAGHDAD — Iraqi pupils have had their dreams of going to a university dashed by teachers who have been failing schoolchildren from rival sectarian groups.
Examiners at Baghdad grading centers who receive papers from both Shi"ite and Sunni pupils erased answers and gave marks below the 50 percent pass mark required to go to state universities.
Several teachers were fired after education officials uncovered the scandal last week, and many more are under investigation.
Officials from Iraq's Ministry of Education are trying to find ways to regrade hundreds of papers, but the task has been complicated by the Iraqi practice of using pencils to fill in exam papers. Investigators trying to uncover altered papers have been thwarted because the graders simply erased the correct answers.
A spokesman for the Education Ministry, Amir al Khafaji, said the teachers involved were able to identify members of rival religious groups from their names
"We feel shame because these educated people have become some sort of terrorists," Mr. al Khafaji said. "Next year, we will make all the teachers swear not to differentiate between Sunnis and Shi'as."
Mr. Khafaji said six teachers — four Sunni and two Shi'ite — were dismissed after fellow graders realized what they were doing.
About 50,000 children a year take the final Bakaloria exam, which covers seven subjects: Islamic history, Arabic, English, mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. To pass, they need an average mark of 50 percent or higher.
The mark has a significant impact on their educational prospects. Pupils who just scrape by cannot hope to get into a state-funded university and must pay their own way at private establishments.
Six of the 14 grading centers in Baghdad are exclusively Shi'ite or Sunni, but education officials discovered the problems at the eight mixed centers.
One Shi'ite teacher, who was dismissed, told investigators: "I gave bad marks to those with Sunni names because I lost one of my sons in al-Adamiya city [a hard-line Sunni area of Baghdad]. He was killed there because he is a Shi'a."
The grading is not due to be completed for another week, but education officials are struggling to find a way of rectifying the situation. Pupils whose marks were unexpectedly low might be allowed to retake the exams.
Pupils were horrified to discover what had happened. Haider Abed, an 18-year-old Shi'ite whose papers had been sent to the Bayaa center, where two Sunnis were caught tampering with papers, threatened violent revenge if he failed to get into a university.
"If I found that I was one of the victims of these two teachers, then I'll do all that I can to cut off their heads," he said.
Sunni pupils were equally unforgiving. Doraid Kasim, also 18, who studied in al-Jihad city, said, "I studied very hard for a long year, and I got excellent marks before the final test. I swear to kill all the Shi'a teachers if I got bad marks."