When I was at the International House, I heard rumors that some foreign students had been accused of cheating in class. The students told me that they didn’t think studying together and helping each other was cheating, but rather enabling everyone to do better. I tried to explain that when it came to exams and tests, they were supposed to be on their own and show how much they knew, not how much the group knew.
Recent news stories revealed that high school students, and even teachers and administrators, have been cheating on SAT and standardized tests. I am not naïve enough to believe that cheating does not happen in Costa Rica and elsewhere. We have a few presidents in this country who have found themselves in hot water, if not in jail, accused of some form of cheating.
Sadly, this is nothing new. I went to high school in a small town in New York State when they had state exams that students took at the end of the class to prove they had learned the subject. When I was a junior, the first Spanish class was offered. Unfortunately, the teacher, a World War II veteran, knew nothing about Spanish much less how to teach it. So we learned more about how he lost his leg fighting for our country than how to pronounce this new language. Of the class of about nine, three of us were top students in the school.
I had never failed a class, but when I finished the state exam, I knew I had failed this one. That afternoon, the Spanish teacher came to my home and insisted that I just needed more time to finish and that he would help me. He placed my exam on the dining room table. I knew the tests were supposed to be put in an envelope and sealed immediately. I told him I wouldn’t do it because it was cheating and I hadn’t learned the subject, anyway. Then I asked if everyone had failed. He said no, that Randall and Sarah (not their names) had passed. I had just dropped to the third smartest student.
The summer before my senior year we moved to a city and I enrolled in a much larger school. In the fall I had to take Spanish I and II at the same time. I spent a lot of time in Spanish II hiding my tears, but I worked hard and passed both state exams with good grades. I had a great teacher. Flash forward 20 years at a beach cocktail party on Fire
Island. An acquaintance came over to me with a bald fellow in tow. “Randall says he knows you,” she said. We got reacquainted and arranged to have a quiet drink later. Almost as soon as we got settled in a booth at the local hangout, Randall brought up the Spanish class. He said he had often wondered why the teacher had not offered me the same opportunity he had offered him and Sarah. After a moment of silence (it never occurred to me that they had been approached), I said that he did, but I had refused.
Randall looked stunned. “All these years I wondered how you felt about failing, because I always felt like I prostituted myself and have regretted it.” I laughed with relief. At first, I said, I was angry because my self-esteem had suffered due to the incompetence of a teacher, but over the years I forgot it. After talking with Randall, I decided anger about the past is better than regret or guilt. Anger can fade.
Now we fast forward 20 more years, and I am at a class reunion at my small town high school class. We were sharing stories about our teachers, and I told my story (neither Randall nor Sarah was there), expecting people to gasp at the dishonorable behavior of my Spanish teacher. Instead several of them laughed. “You were so innocent back then, Jo,” someone said.
Back then, it seems, teachers faced with state-mandated standardized tests cheated and encouraged their students to cheat. I was dismayed (to say the least) at their casual acceptance of such dishonesty.
But maybe there is hope. “Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America,” is a new book by Michael Hais and Morley Winograd, and they think there is. They say this group, born between 1982 and 2003 is “a positive, accomplished, group oriented, civic generation.” Maybe we are back to working together to get the best possible results, not to take tests that are often meaningless in the long run.