Turkish prosecutors are looking into allegations of possible cheating and favoritism in a rite of passage for young Turks nationwide: the annual university entrance exam.
The allegations were raised this week after a lawyer discovered a formula to reach the correct answers for multiple-choice math questions on one exam.
In a country rife with conspiracy theories, the discovery fueled suspicions by some media, students and teacher unions that the state agency which makes the exams devised the alleged code so that students deemed to be pro-government could score high points.
The government vigorously denied such a scheme, but the prosecutor's office in Ankara, the Turkish capital, launched a probe Wednesday into the allegations.
The scandal feeds into mistrust between supporters of Turkey's ruling Islamic-rooted party, which has a strong electoral mandate, and those who fear the government seeks to expand its power so as to undermine secular ideals protected by the constitution.
Some 1.7 million students took the exam March 27, and those who pass will take another exam in June.
Ali Demir, head of the examination institution, insisted that the formula for reaching the correct answer was only valid for a copy of the exam questions that was made available to the media after the test. The formula would not have worked for students taking the exam, he said, without explaining why the media copy was coded in such a way.
Ayla Varan, the lawyer who discovered the formula, realigned the five answer options _ from the smallest to the highest in number _ beneath the five options printed on the exam. In an easy comparison, it emerged that the correct answer was the option whose position did not change in the realignment.
Varan said she decided to look into the questions after some students who took the exam said the numbers in the multiple-choice answer options were printed in a seemingly random order, instead of the usual ascending or descending order.
It was not clear how many, if any, students benefited from the alleged scam. The exam encompasses several subjects in its 160 questions _ 25 percent of them are math-related.
Small groups of high schools students have staged demonstrations in several cities against the state-supervised examination board, known by its Turkish acronym OSYM. In one city, a lawyer petitioned a court to scrap the exam results and devise a new system.
"I believe there will soon be a clarification from prosecutors that these claims are not true," Education Minister Nimet Cubukcu said.
Later, in an address in parliament, Cubukcu said: "I would like to address our students, their parents and all sections of the community who have concerns over the exam: I want you to trust us."
She accused opposition parties of using the allegations for political gain ahead of elections in June.
Last year, an exam to select employees for the civil service, also run by the OSYM, was canceled following a cheating scandal that came to light after an unusually high number of people scored the highest possible mark. Inspectors concluded that the questions were stolen and distributed to some contestants before the exam. The scandal forced the former OSYM head to resign.
The examination board determines which students go to university, based on a two-stage, three-hour exam in March and June on subjects including language, history, biology and mathematics. The process is highly competitive, reflecting a relative dearth of opportunities in higher education in Turkey.
The pressure is so intense that a newspaper columnist once described students who took the exam as "war veterans."
In 2006, a Turkish teenager made a video of himself lip-synching a punk rock song that blasted Turkey's tough system of university enrollment and put it on YouTube. The band that released the song ended up being prosecuted on charges of insulting state employees but were eventually acquitted.