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University Testing Center earns mixed grades from students, professors

Fresno State student John Kummerfeld does not enjoy the strict, sterile environment at his university’s testing center.

While preparing to take a physics exam in the University Testing Center, Kummerfeld realized he forgot to bring a calculator. He said he tried to reason with the student proctor in charge of the exam room before being thrown out of the center for allegedly cursing at the exam monitor.

“I didn’t say anything,” Kummerfeld said. “My teacher actually came in and watched surveillance tape that proved I didn’t say anything. They eventually let me take the test, but it was a nightmare.”

Kummerfeld is part of a significant portion of Fresno State students who feel anxiety, annoyance or a lack of understanding when speaking of the testing center. Rules like no hats, no watches, no bringing in scantrons and no leaving the room were burned into them at the end of long, winding lines in rarely used campus buildings.

For the leadership of University Testing Services, which oversees the center, the strict system has been a success. Teachers have increased their use of the center exponentially since it opened in 2008. The rules, the testing center says, were all taken directly from a national testing center organization or made in response to a specific instance of cheating.

Fresno State faculty, the direct conduit between the center and students, don’t seem willing to come down on either end just yet. The center, they say, has its pros and cons.

Janell Morillo is director of student affairs administration at Fresno State and is the newly appointed overseer of all testing services. She was joined by Rita Bocchinfuso-Cohen, who recently assumed the director of testing services role and runs the center’s day-to-day affairs.

“When we started in 2008 in the Family and Food Science Building, we gave out 3,800 tests,” Morillo said. “In 2015, we will give out 82,000.”

This growth forced the University Testing Center to expand and split. The old location is now the Academic Testing Center, which is used for make-up exams, department tests and as a faculty resource. Testing Services opened up a new center above the on-campus Taco Bell restaurant across from the University Student Union.

The testing center is staffed by about 10 student proctors and a few staff members. They administer and monitor exams for more than 350 Fresno State faculty members.

Proper staffing is difficult, Bocchinfuso-Cohen says, because it is difficult to predict when students will come in to take the exams. Teachers often give their pupils a window of several full days to complete the exams, which most agree is a convenient alternative to traditional testing.

However, this window of convenience can create a log jam, especially near the end of a testing period, Bocchinfuso-Cohen said. That’s what causes the long lines that sometimes plague the center, and preventing this is a high priority for staff members.

Bocchinfuso-Cohen said convenience for both students and teachers is a major goal, but it is not at the top of the heap.

“Protecting the integrity of the test is our top priority,” she said. “Our role is to make the faculty comfortable and make sure they know their tests are secure.”

The testing center subscribes to a list of guidelines and newsletters written by the National College Testing Association (NCTA), a nonprofit made up of professors and testing center staff members around the country. Some of the center’s rules, such as checking student ID cards thoroughly and not allowing students to bring their own scantrons, come straight from these guidelines.

Although Fresno State is an NCTA subscriber, it is not listed as a certified testing center on the organization’s website.

But it’s the center’s additional and more specific rules, like not wearing hats or watches, that upset students.

Fresno State student Nayirah Dosu is a Muslim. Her father is from Nigeria, and her mother is American. She wears a headscarf in public every day as a sign of her faith and cultural heritage.

While taking a final during the fall 2014 semester, Dosu said she was approached by a student proctor who asked her to remove her hood. She explained that it wasn’t part of her sweatshirt and why she wears it, and the proctor left and spoke to a second employee.

The second proctor then approached Dosu and asked her again to remove her scarf, and she explained the situation once more. She was not approached after that and was allowed to finish her test.

Morillo, of student affairs, said there was no record of anyone being asked to remove a headscarf by a testing center employee.

Bocchinfuso-Cohen said that no one would ever be asked to remove cultural or religious attire in the testing center.

“My hope is that we can get this information ahead of time,” she said. “We’d like students to know the rules up front and call us ahead of time if there’s a medical, cultural or religious reason they can’t be followed so we can accommodate that.”

It can be difficult to accommodate students on-site during finals week, Bocchinfuso-Cohen said.

Although it may be unpopular with students, Morillo said the system works. Only a handful of cheating incidents were reported in the more than 58,000 exams given by the center so far in the 2014-2015 school year.

She also shared several insights into how exactly these rules, most of which were designed to curb cheating, also benefit students.

“They [the guidelines] limit distraction,” Morillo said. “You don’t want the person next to you fumbling through their backpack or playing with hats or jewelry.”

Some rules are also designed to create a level playing field for students.

One such example, Morillo said, is the guideline that bars wearing watches. Because of the advancements in wearable technology, some watches could offer major advantages that may not be considered traditional cheating.

Bocchinfuso-Cohen said the strict, somewhat sterile environment is also a great way for students to prepare for the next stage in life.

“Our goal as a university is to make students work-ready,” she said. “The center prepares students for things like licensing and graduate school exams.

“It could feel stressful now, but students will gain experience and learn from these situations.”

Fresno State mass communication and journalism professor Mary Husain used the testing center for several years.

“It (the center) was especially helpful when I used to teach mass lecture courses,” Husain said. “It’s virtually impossible to monitor a class of 100 students alone.”

Husain said the testing center does a “fabulous job” of monitoring exams.

She pointed to one instance in which one of her students had writing on one arm. Employees took pictures of the writing and showed them to Husain, allowing her to determine if the student had been cheating or not.

The student had not, Husain said, but she said the whole episode showed “very proactive” action by the testing center. Husain also defended the no-hat rule, noting that other Fresno State instructors had caught their students cheating in this manner and shared it with their colleagues.

However, the testing center may have some drawbacks.

Several years ago, students sent Husain pictures of massive lines stretching across the center’s old location. She said she notified the dean of undergraduate studies, who saw to it that more testing rooms were opened.

Husain also said that the center, which grades the exams after collecting, takes a while at the end of the semester to get the scores back to professors.

Bocchinfuso-Cohen said that the center not only grades the exams but provides an in-depth analysis of the test’s questions. It’s possible, she added, for this analysis to indicate which exam questions were confusing or bad, thus allowing teachers to improve their own exams.

Husain has since switched to giving exams on Blackboard, which she says has a much faster turnaround for grade-hungry students. Online exams are even more convenient for students and do not force Husain to decipher hand-written essay portions, she said, but there is a higher chance of cheating.

“It’s like anything, really — there are pros and cons to any testing system,” Husain said. “None of them are perfect.”