Background: Spring is one of those special times of year when the air handling system in the Donorbucks Building switches from heating to cooling, or vice versa, sometimes more than once per day. Because the air supply and return vents are not in the same rooms, we must keep our doors open while in our offices to achieve airflow sufficient for sustaining life. While the fans shut down for the changeover, the minutes-long absence of their jet-plane-like roar underscores just how acoustically live the cinder-block-walled, concrete-floored seventh floor can be, and we can’t help but hear almost every word in nearby offices. Fortunately, we’re all pretty quiet, except when a student happens upon the floor. I tender for your amusement what I overheard the other day.
Unidentified voice: Professor Panquehue?
Panquehue: Oh, hello, Stu. What brings you here today?
Stu: Well, I heard from other students that there was an adjustment on the last exam?
Panquehue: Yes, we discovered a problem with one of the questions that resulted in some students gaining another point.
Stu: Well, I feel it's not fair that I didn't get any more points.
Panquehue: Not fair? Please explain.
Stu: My score should have gone up.
Panquehue: Okay, essentially reaffirming the consequent. Please make your case again in different words.
Stu: I should have gotten another point like my friend did, so it's not fair.
Panquehue: I am sensing a pattern here. Maybe I can help. You think another point was due to you, and you are inquiring as to why that didn't happen, such as maybe there was a mistake in the scoring.
Stu: Yeah. I want you to show me why my friend got another point and I didn't. Her name is...
Panquehue: No, I'm not discussing anyone else's exam with you. Your exam is in the department office with the rest, but I have the master right here, so let's see how far we get with that. The question in question is... number eighteen? Yes, eighteen. Do you recognize this one?
Stu: The main cause of loss of structural integrity [unintelligible mumbling]... yeah, I remember. This is the one I almost got tripped up on.
Panquehue: OK, good. Answer B was correct, which is what we'd keyed into the scantron reader. It turned out answer A was correct as well. We don't make mistakes like this too often, but when we do, we try to do right by the class. So the forty or so percent of the class who answered A got another point when we reran the scantrons to accept both A and B.
Stu: But I answered C.
Panquehue: Well, then, this is pretty straightforward. You don't get the point, and we're done here.
Stu: But it's not fair!
Panquehue: I disagree but sense you wish to pursue the matter further.
Stu: We're supposed to pick the BEST answer. When there are two answers that are equivalent, that means neither of them can be the best, so you can eliminate them and work from the other three.
Panquehue: A and B are not equivalent, just approximately equally good. And that's an intriguing test-taking strategy. Did you come up with that on your own?
Stu: No, I think I got that at Kaplan, prepping for the SAT.
Panquehue: Well, that's well and good, but this isn't Kaplan, and this exam isn't the SAT. Are we done?
Stu: But I shouldn't be penalized for using a proven strategy...
Panquehue: Let's stop there. You were not penalized. You chose the wrong answer, and consequently you didn't earn the point. You start from zero and work your way up, not the other way around.
Stu: But I chose the best answer!
Panquehue: Answer C was clearly wrong.
Stu: But for the purposes of the test, C is the best answer.
Panquehue: Again, if you knew the material, you'd know that "loss of hysteresis" was not a good answer, and you'd have answered A or B which were clearly better.
Stu: But after you eliminate A and B, C is better than D and E!
Panquehue: No, that's not how it works. The question wasn't about which of the wrong answers was less wrong.
Stu: But for the purposes of this test, because there were two equivalent right answers...
Panquehue: Yes, we covered that. In the Olympics, if two runners tie for first, the gold medal is not awarded to the one who comes in third, and you don't get a point for the bronze here. And I'm now at a loss how to explain it better, but my colleague is really good with this stuff, and we don't even need to get out of our seats.
Voice on speakerphone: Yes?
Panquehue: Do you have a minute? We need some help with the readjustment on the latest exam.
Voice on speakerphone: I'll be right there.
[Sound of footsteps]
Feta: Hi. What seems to be the difficulty?
Panquehue: What is the procedure when it turns out there is more than one correct answer on a multiple choice question?
Feta: That's simple. We rerun the scantrons to accept all answers that were correct for that question. Students who answer the remaining wrong choices, or who left it blank, don't earn the point.
Stu: Yeah, but that penalizes those who use test-taking strategy to eliminate...
Feta: It penalizes no one. It actually gives credit where credit is due.
Stu: But for the purposes of the test, you should accept the best of the wrong answers, because there can only be only one right answer.
Feta: Not so. As happens more often in life, on an exam there are sometimes two or more good answers to a question.
Stu: But for the purposes of the test...
Feta: This is about question eighteen, isn't it? You answered D?
Stu: No, C.
Feta: Oh, you were that one? Most of the people who got that question wrong answered D. Look. About eighty percent of the class split about evenly between A and B, and of the upper quintile, about ninety-five percent answered either A or B, so this was clearly a do-able question.
Stu: But for the purposes of this test, you should throw out that question and give everybody a point for it, because it was flawed.
Feta: The purpose of the test is for you to demonstrate what you know by providing the correct response, the result of which is you earn a score roughly commensurate with your competency. What you just suggested is what we do if it turns out there is NO correct answer. But that’s even more rare than two right answers, and at any rate, it’s not what happened here.
Stu: But it’s not fair...
Feta: It is not fair to those who studied and learned the material and selected the correct answer for those who didn’t to get the same score, even on a single question. Doctor Panquehue, was there anything else?
Panquehue: No. Thanks for your trouble.
Feta: De nada.
[Sound of footsteps.]
Stu: I want to file an appeal.
Panquehue: That is your right.
Stu: How do I do that?
Panquehue: The handbook says that appeals go first to the course director -- that's me -- then to the Associate Dean of Curriculum and Assessment.
Stu: Who's that?
Panquehue: I'll save you the trouble. Doctor Feta?
Voice on speakerphone: This is Stilton. Feta stepped out... oh, she's back.
Feta: [on speakerphone] Yes?
Panquehue: A student wishes to appeal a grade on an exam.
Feta: I'll be right there.
[Sound of footsteps.]
Stu: Oh, it's you again.
Feta: Oui, c'est moi. You wish to file an appeal?
Feta: Okay. I've already heard part of the case. I only need one more piece of information. Doctor Panquehue, you're the content expert. I'm sorry to have to ask you this, but, well, it's policy. Is there any way that answer C is correct?
Panquehue: No. And to answer your next question, no evidence has been presented that it is even partly correct, much less on par with A or B.
Feta: Then the appeal is denied.
Stu: How do I appeal your denial?
Feta: Of course. Your next stop is the provost. But so that you don't waste your time, you should build a better case. Understand that you are asking to be given a point for selecting a wrong answer. The provost’s response is likely to be the same as ours was: if you knew the material, you would have picked one of the right answers, just like the vast majority of the class did. So formulate an argument based on evidence from the most current and reliable research on that topic. The course director will be providing the counterargument.
[Sound of chair sliding on the floor.]
Stu: Well, I’ll take my chances with the provost right now.
Feta: Of course. Good afternoon, Stu.
[Sound of footsteps.]
Stu: [fading into the distance] It’s not fair.
Feta: So how long was he with you before I got involved?
Panquehue: Not too long. I had several opportunities to end it, but this was kind of a new twist. Sorry if it took too much of your time.
Feta: No worries. Like fire drills -- often enough to keep in practice, seldom enough to not be a nuisance.
Panquehue: What do you think will happen with the provost?
Feta: Well, it probably won’t set a precedent that has any long-term repercussions, and I’ve fought on principle enough that I don’t mind being reversed, and it’s just one point, so he’ll side with us. He reserves his reversals for things that fuck us in more drastic and lasting ways.
Panquehue: We could make BINGO cards for these things. “It’s not fair.” “How do I appeal.”
Feta: I know, right? “But for the purposes of the test.” How many times did you hear that?
Panquehue: I lost count. I wanted to say, “You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Feta: But for the purposes of the test, I assumed the horse was a sphere.
Panquehue: But for the purposes of the test, I assumed a can opener.
Feta: But for the purposes of the test, you need to give me a private jet and transfer all funds to my account in the Caymans.
Panquehue: But for the purposes of the test, rainbows and unicorns will fly straight out of my ass.
[Whereupon the air handler fans rev up and the conversation is no longer audible.]