Con Law Exam Mishap Opens Debate Over Grading Policy
Three weeks into spring semester and well after the grade submission deadline, several Fordham Law students are still missing fall grades. But for students in one Constitutional Law class, the issue was having too many grades. After confirming allegations that the professor recycled questions from prior exams available to only some students in the class, the Office of Academic Affairs scheduled an optional make-up exam on January 18.
A portion of students in Con Law with Professor Robert Kaczorowski had inadvertently accessed exam questions before the final. According to one student who wished to remain anonymous, Kaczorowski did not make any practice exams available and an unknown number of students used practice exam questions provided to Professor Andrew Kent’s Con Law class.
The source said he and several classmates recognized more than 15 of the 25 multiple-choice questions on their own exam from Kent’s 2009 and 2010 exams.
“This set off a firestorm where within a few hours the entire class was aware of what happened and obviously not happy,” he said. “This allowed those who had access to the exams not only essentially an answer key but provided those students with extra time to craft a superior essay.”
The make-up exam was scheduled for January 18 after students emailed the professor, Academic Affairs, and the Registrar following the final.
Kaczorowski, in a December 17th email routed through Registrar Audrey Glassman, was quick to admit the error.
“These students did nothing wrong. To the contrary, they were diligent in their preparation for the examination. I alone am responsible for this breach in the exam’s security.”
To address the mistake, Academic Affairs decided to grade both the original exam and the optional make-up exam on separate curves. Students could either be graded on the original exam, on a curve with only the students declining the option make-up, or they could take the make-up and be graded on a curve with only the students who took the second exam. To eliminate perceived or actual unfairness in this scheme, the school implemented another safety net. Every student in the class will receive either the grade from the exam or the grade equivalent to the weighted average of their other fall semester classes, whichever is higher.
The law school’s alternative grading scheme—which effectively eliminates the curve for the effected class—has been criticized by students both in the class and those in other Con Law sections, though none agreed to go on record. The administration was also displeased with the alternative, but Vice Dean of Academic Affairs Sheila Foster said these are rare circumstances.
“Almost all of the remedies involved in situations like this compromise the curve and that is one of the most unfortunate aspects of these situations and reason enough for faculty to avoid recycling old exams,” Foster said via email. “The remedy arrived at here, albeit far from perfect (there is no perfect remedy in situations like this, I have found), was designed to address the particular circumstances of this exam and this Professor.”
Despite the infrequency of such incidents at Fordham (Glassman said there have been only a few instances over the past decade), several students in the class had a similar experience in the fall of 2011 when a 1L professor reused questions that were also available to only a segment of the class.
This is not a problem unique to Fordham. In 2009, a Contracts professor at NYU reused his old exam questions, and in 2011, a Penn State professor reused questions for a Corporations exam. In both cases, students were given a number of options, as they were at Fordham.
According to Foster, the law school asks professors not to recycle old exams, even if they are not in the public domain, and most professors are aware of the risks.
“There are consequences to faculty when incidents like this happen, not the least of which is a kind of public shaming,” she said. “Given the low number of incidents in recent years in a school this large, I believe that the consequences are sufficient incentive for the vast majority of faculty to avoid making these mistakes.”
–David James Harvey