Monday, December 5, 2011

Test Takers

I had a terrific experience as a doctoral student. The courses, the faculty, the other students all made for a wonderful educational journey. I was certain economics was the right field for me before I began and I was even more certain by the time I graduated.  Within this wonderful experience, one moment still stands out, not because it directly involved economics, not because it represented an intellectual breakthrough, but rather because I learned an important life lesson.

That moment was when I took my statistics qualifying examination.  That day approximately a dozen students came to take the exam.  The faculty proctor handed out the exam and we all began.  Now the statistics qualifying exam had a reputation for being rigorous but also had a reputation as an exam where typically 5 people passed.  If there were a small number of test takers or a larger number, the results always seemed to be the same—five students passed.  About thirty minutes into a two hour exam, the proctor decided to leave the room while we all continued working on our examinations.  Shortly thereafter one thing changed.  Even though this was not an open book examination, one of the test takers took out the textbook plus a notebook, and began working on the answers with the added support in clear view. What did I do and what did the rest of the class do?  Each of us just kept working on the examination and following the rules.

About an hour later, the proctor returned for the last 30 minutes of the examination period.  Within a few minutes most of us handed in our exams and left the room.  I thought I did well on the exam but nevertheless, was a little apprehensive.   I didn’t say anything to the proctor as I was leaving about the person cheating, and to my knowledge neither did anyone else.  A day or two later, I found out that one of my classmates reported the student who cheated.  His exam was disallowed and I was told he was suspended from the program.  A penalty that was certainly deserved.

When the results of the exam became known about two weeks later, I was relieved to learn that I had passed.  Five students passed this qualifying exam, and going from highest to lowest passing grade, I was number 5.  If the cheater hadn’t been turned in, I assume I would not have passed.

I have been thinking about the Long Island students who paid other students to take the SATs for them.  For a few thousand dollars, they were on the fast track to a much more impressive SAT score and the resulting benefits in terms of gaining admission or being awarded a scholarship.  But very often, just as was the case in my statistics qualifying examination, someone cheating their way to admission or a scholarship likely precluded the person deserving the recognition from receiving it.  In all the publicity regarding the exam takers and those who paid for someone to take the exam, the real potential victims have not been identified. They are the individuals who did everything right, but nevertheless would have been shortchanged out of the positive results of their efforts.  I know it can happen.  It almost happened to me.

I often think that we are not as stringent as we should be in our monitoring and enforcement of academic honesty and I also think that we are often too lenient in the penalties we impose for violations of academic honesty.  If we are to be fair to the individuals who do everything the way it should be done, we (faculty, students, and administrators) need to do more to eliminate cheating. If we turn the other cheek to cheating, we are hurting ourselves and cheating the system that we are part of.

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