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To See Or Not To See?

There’s a young teacher I’ve taken under my wing of late. I’ve been trying to help her get her classes under control and she’s made considerable progress in a very short time. But though I’ve got 20+ years of experience on her, the other day she managed to teach me a thing or two. Several of her students had unexpectedly shared their novel cheating strategies with her. Perhaps her youth made her appear more sympathetic than she really was.

She surprised the kids, though, by establishing new and unexpected ground rules for her next test. One of the boys who’d confided in her almost cried when he heard them:

  1. No water bottles. It’s fairly easy for a kid to manipulate a water bottle so that the test answers are just a twist away. What teacher would deprive a kid of a swig of water? Probably one that wants the kid to study rather than cheat.
  2. No electronic dictionaries. This one was not news to me. Kids can place as much text as they like on these little things. One year I noticed two identical essays on the English Regents exams, right down to the misspellings. A supervisor called them both in and asked them to reproduce the essays. One wrote nothing, and was disqualified. The other produced the first few sentences from the essay and was allowed to pass. I protested, telling the supervisor I could recite “Annabel Lee” from memory, but that didn’t make me Edgar Allen Poe. I was overruled.
  3. No flicking your pen. I teach a lot of kids who can do incredible things with pens. But maybe they’re signaling one another. Or it could be one angle of that pen gives them the answers. In fact, whether or not they flick the pen this is tough to catch. Maybe we should distribute our own pens or pencils and insist they be the only ones used.
  4. No raising your hand. While a kid shouts, “Yo miss,” who’s to say he’s not raising fingers — 4 for part 4, 3 for number 3, and two for choice B? Students can make eye contact with the teacher to signal a question.
  5. No tapping on the desk. Why raise your hand when you can signal with taps for either the answer, or even the answer you’re seeking?
  6. No pencil holders on the desk. Because who really knows what’s inside those things?
  7. No backpacks on desk, lap, or back. Admittedly this one, perhaps along with the last, is not that tough-everything other than pen and paper ought to be on the floor.
  8. No fidgeting. Well, if it works in blackjack, why shouldn’t it work on an exam?

She also alerted me to codes consisting of coughing, sneezing, blowing noses, and even breathing. I was relieved to hear she’d refrained from ruling out breathing (risky though it may be).

Another teacher at our table told a story of a young man who was shocked to get a 57 on a test — the student he’d copied from got 100. The student approached her, certain that she’d made a mistake. Actually what she’d done was quietly distribute an alternate test with different answers.

The kid did not realize he’d just announced to her that he’d copied the entire test. She, being evil incarnate, had coldly calculated the numbers and knew instantly.

When she told him, he confessed that he’d been cheating since kindergarten, and that his father (!) had actually gotten him started with tricks here and there. He came from a country in which high-stakes testing was a way of life, and rampant ever-more-sophisticated cheating was the inevitable by-product. Everyone did it, so why shouldn’t he?

That brings us to this, New York State’s new agreement to rate teachers based on the test scores of their students. Some day soon my young protégé’s job may hinge on the scores her kids get. Forgetting all of the above could likely work in her favor. In fact, if she were to not only encourage cheating, but also actively participate in it, it could be a real feather in her cap. A few points here, a few there, and all of a sudden she’s a highly effective teacher, maybe even earning merit pay.

And really, who am I to keep new teachers from riches and professional advancement? Why should I inflict my quaint and archaic reservations about cheating on young people? Thanks to this new agreement, it’s a whole new world out there.

Perhaps I should have counseled her to ignore the whole thing and let the kids carry on.

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