Recently I asked my readers to look at the 1976 written math exam that was given to applicants wishing to study at the math department of Moscow State University. Now it’s time to reveal the hidden agenda. My readers noticed that problems 1, 2, and 3 were relatively simple, problem 4 was very hard, and problem 5 was extremely hard. It seems unfair and strange that problems of such different difficulty were worth the same. It is also suspicious that the difficult problems had no opportunity for partial credit. As a result of these characteristics of the exam, almost every applicant would get 3 points, the lowest passing score. The same situation persisted for many years in a row. Why would the best place to study math in Soviet Russia not differentiate the math abilities of its applicants?
In those years the math department of Moscow State University was infamous for its antisemitism and its efforts to exclude all Jewish students from the University. The strange structure of the exam accomplished three objectives toward that goal.
1. Protect the fast track. There was a fast track for students with a gold medal from their high school who got 5 points on the written exam. The structure of the exam guaranteed that very few students could solve all 5 problems. If by chance a Jewish student solved all 5 problems, it was not much work to find some minor stylistic mistake and not count the solution.
2. Avoid raising suspicion at the next exams. The second math entrance exam was oral. At such an exam different students would talk one-on-one with professors and would have to answer different questions. It was much easier to arrange difficult questions for undesirable students and fail all the Jewish students during the oral exam than during the written exam. But if many students with perfect scores on the written exam had failed the oral exam, it might have raised a lot of questions.
3. Protect appeals. Despite these gigantic efforts, there were cases when Jewish students with a failing score of 2 points were able to appeal and earn the minimum passing score of 3. If undesirable students managed to appeal all the exams, they would only get a half-passing grade at the end and would not be accepted because the department was allowed to choose from the many students that the exams guaranteed would have half-passing scores.
I have only heard about one faculty member who tried to publicly fight the written exam system. It was Vladimir Arnold, and I will tell the story some other time.Share: