Friday, September 30, 2016

Data Dictatorship: How the Police State Has Invaded Graduate School Applications

Note: This was written by a brilliant graduate applicant who chooses to remain anonymous. Read it and weep!

Merriam-Webster defines the term “excess” as “an amount that is more than the usual or necessary amount.” A second, but equally fitting definition, includes “behavior that is considered wrong because it goes beyond what is usual, normal, and proper.” I would certainly describe the inordinate amount of security measures imposed on me during my recent experience sitting for the GRE exam as excessive—to say the least.

But it shouldn’t be a problem, right? Security is a good thing. As a prospective graduate student, I am expected to be quiet, follow orders, and take my exam. I am not to find any part of the security protocol uncomfortable or disconcerting. I could (and did), but I know I wouldn’t dare express my discomfort, as that would mean the end of my ambition to attend graduate school and earn a doctorate. Even if I had chosen to opt-out that morning and choose another testing center (which like Voldemort, need not be named), the security measures for high-stakes testing would remain the same. I am required to present GRE scores in my applications to graduate programs, and as such, forced to accept all of the requirements regarding test day. But what happens when security measures intended to discourage inequity infringe on a student’s right to privacy? What happens when test center protocol intended to facilitate a successful test day, hinder it?

Before I begin a general overview of the process, it is imperative to point out that the proctors at the testing center were helpful and ready to answer any questions I may have had. The draconian policies that they are required to enforce, however, is a different matter entirely. 

First, I was asked to familiarize myself (quickly) with all of the test center’s policies and copy a statement in which I promise not share the content of my exam—a standard part of any “official” exam. Then, I was monitored as I placed my items in my designated locker and only allowed to keep my ID with me. No writing materials (fine), but no water either (even if you were to bring a spill-proof water bottle). Test-takers waited in line as proctors called each of us one by one through an unremarkable metal detector. All of the above were procedures that did not feel intrusive, yet. 

Next, my clothes were examined in case I decided to bring prohibited materials. In essence, I was required to give myself a pat-down as proctors supervised. I had to lift the ankles of my pants so my calves and the tops of my shoes were visible, next my shirt sleeves, and then I had to open and shake every single pocket to prove they were empty. Yes, even the impractical hidden pocket on the inside part of the band on my exercise leggings that I forgot existed (it is big enough to fit a quarter and that’s about it), as one of the proctors so gently reminded me. Then I was led to a hallway in which nervous hopefuls were required to wait outside their particular testing labs until they were “processed.” I sat on a bench outside the lab I spent the next 5 hours in, fidgeting with my fingers until I watched another test-taker being processed in front of me. He was required to prove his identity with a series of personal questions, provide his ID, signature, and his fingerprints (yes, even his fingerprints), all the while the proctor in charge constantly checked his face against the photo on his ID. Next, he was instructed to stand against the wall as his photo was taken and added to the testing center’s database. As he signed in, the last step in the pre-lab process which seemed to last a lifetime, it was then that I noticed the endless sea of security cameras lining the wall. They took note of every student; every movement; every breath. Not only was there surveillance in each hallway, but at each station, monitoring not only the whole lab as an overview, but each student taking an exam. It was then my heart started to pound with the knowledge that I would be watched, literally, the entire time I was taking the exam. And if they noticed any “suspicious” behavior (which was vaguely defined in and of itself) they had every right to enter the lab and, in a manner of speaking, apprehend me. What was even their definition of “suspicious” behavior. As someone prone to anxiety and medically diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I naturally began to worry. What if my neck hurt and I turned my head in a certain direction? Would Big Brother watching think I was trying to cheat?

Was I in a testing center or correctional facility?

And then it was my turn to be “processed.”

I shook the entire time—it felt like a dream. Not only was I about the take the exam I had prepared for months in advance, but instead of facilitating optimism, I felt hunted by the test center, like I was in a psychological experiment studying how spot a cheater. I no longer was a dedicated student with a passion for learning hoping to join the ranks of academia—I was an untrustworthy, culpable youth.

For the record, I would never condone cheating or the notion that responses to instances of academic dishonestly should be lax and that measures should not be taken to prevent cheaters from getting away with cheating in the first place. But fingerprints? Cameras following your every move, including your own personal one never leaving your station for 5 hours recording every second you bite your nails, wipe the nervous sweat off your brow? And what about the fact I don’t even know the exact conditions of the video recording and what exactly the test center does with that recording? If it was my own error missing the policy, I will fully own up to it, but I can’t say I like the idea of the test center having a five-hour long recording of me taking my exam. How long do they have it for? Do they delete it after the test is complete or do they save it for a rainy day, waiting to catch the next cheater? Such a policy was not made clear.

Of further note, when I left for a 10-minute bathroom break, I was required to sign out. To return, I had to walk through the metal detector for a second time, pat myself down and demonstrate my clothing was still free of prohibited materials, and wait until I was allowed to continue taking my exam.

While I scored well above average on the exam, I know that my performance was certainly affected by the intimidating environment. On average, I scored significantly higher (about 15-20 points) on practice exams made directly by the makers of the test (thus, the type of test prep program is not a variable here). I caught myself thinking about the multitude of cameras on me more often than I cared to, ensuring I refrained from doing anything “suspicious,” which I never intended on doing (nor would ever) in the first place.

Sure, one can argue that it is difficult to secure a student against intimidation and nerves on the day of an important exam. Moreover, I fully acknowledge that such security measures would not exist if students had taken advantage of what previously must have been less stringent policies. However, like many policies and measures intended to “help,” they can often be implemented to the point of exaggeration and excess; to the point where they do not help, but hinder. What’s to stop high-stakes test centers from demanding a saliva sample, once fingerprints are not enough? They could simply employ the same problematic logic (the same logic that is too reminiscent of the motives behind the PATRIOT Act and unencumbered NSA surveillance) once someone nefarious figures out how to dupe the system again. Cue further invasion of privacy.

Yet like every one of my fellow test-takers, I was required to be complacent that the test center had taken such care to ensure an honest and fair experience. I will need to be obedient once more when I sit for the exam a second time, hoping that an acclamation to such drastic security measures (not unlike a US military station in Iraq, as one ex-marine on the net has likened the test center surveillance to) will not intimidate me.

Unfortunately, I need that official score report to be the scholar I dream of becoming. The price? Complacency. While the official score is supposed to be a measure of intelligence, it conveniently refuses to reflect how inimical the ordeal of the high-stakes testing center experience is to a student’s success. 

Note  Here is telling testimony of a former marine who claimed the surveillance he saw at his testing center was military-grade--another pretty important piece to read! 

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