Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The SAP also rises

And I play the sap in real life!

I am totally in sympathy with the goals of our Student Assistance Program. No, really I am. At least, that is, with its stated goals. I'm less than enthusiastic how some of those goals get interpreted in practice.

In brief, SAP intends to help each student succeed in his or her academic endeavors. Teachers and counselors work together to provide compensating accommodation for students with learning or physical disabilities. That may mean providing Braille translation of class texts for blind students, sign-language interpreters for the deaf, quiet testing rooms for those with attention deficits, and extra time for those afflicted with dyslexia or dyscalculia.

Of course, some of us harbor dark suspicions that there exist students who believe that SAP is just a good way to get time-and-a-half on your exams. Just tell the SAP counselors a sad story and you're on your way. Professors compare notes and marvel that no one has ever had a student come back from a SAP appointment to report, “No, they said I'm perfectly okay. I'm supposed to take exams with my classmates and have the same amount of time that they do.”

Despite these concerns, most of the time I'm perfectly happy to cooperate in assuaging the fears of the mathematically anxious and accommodating the needs of the learning disabled. I admit, though, to resenting the occasional student who regards his or her acceptance into SAP's intervention program as carte blanche to indulge petty whims or disrupt the entire fabric of a course.

One notable example occurred several years ago in a prealgebra student, when a chronically absent student enrolled in SAP and then began to tell me when to schedule my exams. The exams were already set in the syllabus. She needed to sign up for a self-paced class if she wanted that kind of accommodation. I gently informed her that the announced exam dates would be the exam dates unless I announced otherwise (which I was decidedly not doing). She pouted, none too prettily, and then changed the topic to all of the in-class work she had missed by her absences. She wanted to make up work that she had missed weeks earlier. I informed her that the window for make-ups had long expired on the material from earlier chapters. When it turned out she couldn't pass any exams even with extra time, she dropped the class. I'm sure it was as much a relief to her as to me.

Most of my SAP students are a lot more reasonable. That's why I was so surprised one recent semester when I received a peremptory little message from the SAP coordinator's office.
Your arithmetic students are scheduled to take their finals starting tomorrow, Friday, and we have no finals. Please send us their tests. Thank you.
I wrote back as nicely as I could:
We may have a problem. Our arithmetic final exam is not until Tuesday next week. I did not tell anyone that the final exam would be available before that day.
They remained unmollified:
Because we have a shortage of rooms we had to book earlier. Only one student is scheduled to take that test here tomorrow. Could you please accommodate that student?
They mentioned the name of the student in question. It made no sense that she would have jumped the gun by a full four days. I figured that SAP had screwed up. I tried explaining things to them:
This is not a straightforward matter of accommodation. Our last class meeting was today. Finals are next week. The final exam for our class does not exist. It will be written over this weekend. SAP should not be booking students for final exams this far in advance of the actual final exam date (Tuesday) without clearing it first with the instructor. What we have here is a failure to communicate. I did not tell my students or SAP that the final exam would be available this early. I understand that your facilities get very crowded during finals week, but certain basic steps to coordinate with the instructor were skipped, and that's why we're in a bind today.
I then demonstrated my magnanimity. The student in question was a reasonable person who had never given me any trouble. SAP had misled her by booking her so early. It was not her fault.
Since Ms. Doe is a responsible student and I am sure that she did not make this mistake deliberately, there is one possible remedy that I can offer. The attached file is a pdf of my final exam from an arithmetic class I taught last year. Since I have not made copies of this available to my current class, Ms. Doe will not have seen it and the old final exam is a reasonably close match to the class I taught this semester. I will allow her to take this final exam in lieu of the one that has yet to be written. Otherwise, she will need to make arrangements with SAP to take her class final on Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday next week, whenever possible.
Feeling just a bit smug at my generosity after having chewed out the SAP office for trying to give me the bum's rush, I moved the mouse pointer to the Send button, ready to dispatch my grand pronunciamento. But I paused. For courtesy's sake, it would only be fair to let Ms. Doe ponder the alternative I was offering, rather than simply letting SAP surprise her with it on the morrow. I quickly typed her e-mail address in the CC window and clicked Send.

The deed was done. A few seconds later, I had a dazzlingly bright flash of insight.

I had sent SAP the final exam. And I had sent my student the final exam.

Oh, damn.

The initial sensation of horror passed quickly enough. It was late in the evening. She probably wouldn't see her copy of the message till morning, while getting ready to go to school for her premature final exam. She wouldn't have time to take advantage of her teacher's stupidity. It was not a disaster. Probably.

In fact, our travails were all for naught. SAP had already e-mailed Ms. Doe a reminder to show up for her exam and she recognized the problem. She had not asked for Friday. She had asked for a block of time on Tuesday, our actual exam date. SAP had booked her on the wrong day. She went in on Friday and had them fix the schedule, restoring the Tuesday appointment. Ms. Doe took the exam on the prescribed day and passed with flying colors. I was doubtful that her SAP accommodation was even necessary.

Her teacher, however, the absent-minded professor: He might want to look into getting some SAP assistance.


Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Heh. I love these little stories from your life, prof Zed.

I think you'd be one of the *good* teachers at our community college. Not one of those we slag off them minute they turn their backs.

I work with the janitor and librarirans - there is a vast spanion of attitudes among the staff to the services we render.

Shygetz said...

Doh! While take-home arithmetic exams would certainly be avant garde, it might set some of the other students off if they found out.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Oh. I completely forgot: what does L have to do with this?

Zeno said...

I thought you knew, Sili: L stands for "loser", and I certainly lost it in this incident.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

I see. I only thought of him in terms of Death Note (which I have still to read ...).

kai said...

Brings back a memory:
When I still taught the departmental drill was that exams be handed in to the appointed secretary a couple of days beforehand for copying. Solutions to the exam were also often supplied.

The teacher does not necessarily have to be present at the exam, but I consider it a nice gesture to be there when the exam is handed out.

So, there I am one early morning, smiling sweetly at the students. The hour comes and the proctor starts handing out the exam. I absent-mindedly pick up a copy for myself. Wait a minute… two pages? Yup, in copying the solutions had been stapled to the questions!

I scream: “Freeze! Keep your hands where I can see them!” and then rush from desk to desk, ripping off the solutions page from the bemused students' exams. Disaster averted.

From then on I added big Post-It notes to copying originals: “Exam”, “Questions”