Back in the 1990’s, I taught for several years at a major university as an Adjunct Lecturer of Accounting. This story is based on an actual event, though the student’s name, thoughts and motives have been fictionalized.
Just as the professor started the evening class, David settled into his seat at the back of the lecture hall. The non-traditional students – people older than the average college students who worked during the day and studied for degrees at night – sat in the front rows of the lecture hall, asked lots of questions, and did the homework assignments. With work and a career still three years away, nineteen-year-old David joined the handful of other campus-living students on the back row, happy to have found a way to take a required course – Introduction to Accounting – by attending class only one time a week – albeit from 6 to 9 pm.
Just a few minutes after class, though, he would be sitting in the fraternity house drinking beer with his buddies while those front-rowers would be driving their cars home to wives and husbands and kids and mortgages.
Besides, sitting beside Maria made the time fly. Laughing at her whispered jokes. Admiring the doodles she drew around her notes. Faking a smile when she talked about Rick and how perfect he was.
She smiled at him as he settled into his seat. “Hey,” she whispered, “You ace this test? I noticed how fast you finished it. You must have really studied.”
“I feel pretty good about it.” Of course he felt good about the exam; he had the fraternity to thank for that. Despite the party reputation of fraternities, they also expected members to excel. Study groups met regularly to help each other score well on tests, write strong research papers, and complete homework.
The various Introduction to Accounting courses were taught by different professors. Some business people like this teacher who worked a regular job during the day and taught one class a semester at night. Others were new professors working toward their tenure. Tenured professors avoided the introductory courses and the giant lecture halls, preferring smaller classes and serious students. To ensure that everyone taught the required material in the introductory classes, the university prepared standardized exams. Every Introduction to Accounting class took the same exam on the same day, a 50-question multiple choice exam.
The fraternity’s study group for the accounting class included copies of prior year exams. The exams would change slightly year to year, but many of the questions would repeat. Studying those exams guaranteed a B or C without spending any time on homework.
Weeks before, on the day of the first exam, David sat in his room reviewing the old exams when his roommate, Ian, who took the early morning class and, thus, had already taken the exam, stumbled in and collapsed on his bed.
“Still studying, eh?”
“How was the test?”
“Easy. I was so prepared.”
“Yeah. A lot of the old questions on the test?”
“Yeah. All but one. It was so awesome.”
“What was the one?”
“Dude, I’ll do you better than that. Here.” Ian handed over a sheet of paper – D,C,D,B,A,C,A,C,D,B,B, . . .
“What? These are the answers?”
“Yep. You helped me with that stupid marketing project, so I owe you. Just miss a couple of them, you know, just in case.”
Hunched over that first exam a few hours later, David studied the first question. Remembered it from a prior exam. Answered it in his head. Checked the answer against the cheat sheet. D. Perfect.
Second question. Yep, on a prior exam. Checked the answer. C. So perfect.
Every question, except one, was familiar. And the answers lined up with Ian’s answers. David changed a couple on purpose. And had scored an A on the exam. Suddenly, Introduction to Accounting didn’t seem that threatening at all.
For the second test last week, he didn’t bother studying the old exams. He did Ian’s marketing research paper instead. And Ian provided him the accounting answers after taking the morning exam. David marched into the evening accounting class, pulled out his trusty calculator and went to work – copying the answers from the small piece of paper tucked in his calculator cover.
“David Carter.” David got out of his seat and bounded down the steps of the lecture hall. He took the folded answer sheet – along with his numbered exam with the questions – and returned to the seat.
“Maria Doppler.” David wistfully watched Maria retrieve her exam and daydreamed dating her. Rick would be graduating this spring, leaving Maria all alone on campus. David would be there, always the friend. Waiting for his chance. And she was already impressed with how smart he was in accounting.
She settled back into her seat and tentatively opened the paper, a red 86 greeting her. She shrugged. “B. I’ll take it. This stuff is hard.”
“I can help you study for the final. If you want.”
Maria smiled. “Thanks. Rick will be slammed with his finals, so maybe. I really appreciate the help. Especially with your good grades.”
David shrugged. “Sure. Glad to. What are friends for?”
The exams distributed, the professor began reviewing the questions one by one, projecting the solutions on a giant screen above his head. As Maria focused on the explanations, David finally opened his exam answer sheet.
“12. See me after class.” Bright red marker. Circled. The “See me” underlined.
David stopped breathing. His eyes watered. Color drained from his face.
Twelve? But how?
Had he written the answers down wrong? Maybe the wrong order. He fumbled open his calculator and slid out the tiny slip of paper. Compared it to the answer sheet. No, they were the same. Same answers. Same order.
Had Ian screwed up? He had been happy with his grade this morning. A 96. He got all but two answers. So he knew what he was doing.
David stared at the test paper. The professor was reviewing question 11. The answer was asset. The exam paper showed asset was option B. David had written down D. Ian’s answer sheet had shown D. But D was revenue. Revenue didn’t make sense. If he had read the question last week, he would have known that much even without studying.
Had Ian screwed him? Given him bad answers? Why? It didn’t make sense, but what other explanation could there be? Why would Ian do that?
The professor droned on, solving each problem, but David heard nothing. He couldn’t think. Couldn’t concentrate. His dad would kill him. Grades mattered to the Carter family. How would he explain failing accounting?
And mom had already argued that the fraternity was a distraction. They weren’t sending him to school to party. They weren’t paying all of that money for him to have fun. Would she make him quit the fraternity?
After reviewing the exam, the class turned to a lecture on the next chapter. Problems were thrown on the board. Students asked questions. People laughed – and groaned – at the professor’s corny jokes. David’s stomach churned. Must be a mistake. He had to talk to the teacher.
Finally, the end. The class was over. Students were standing. Gathering books. Chatting. David sat slumped in his seat waiting for the room to clear.
David looked up into Maria’s brown eyes. “Yeah. Fine.”
“You walking out?”
“Uh, no. I have to ask Mr. Wall a couple of things.”
Maria laughed. “An A student and chatting up the professor. You must really want to be an accountant.”
“No. Sales. Like my old man. Just need the class for my business major.”
“As good as your grades are here, you should consider it.”
Maria looked disappointed as she gathered her books. “Ok, well, I will see you around.”
David waited as student after student, all five to ten years older than him, chatted with the professor. Asked him questions. Talked about their day jobs.
Finally, mercifully, the last exited, leaving only Mr. Wall and David – a gulf of empty seats between them. David stood, gathered his papers, and walked down the steps. He handed the exam answer sheet to the professor. Pointed at the inscription. “12. See me.”
“I was surprised.”
“Me, too,” David mumbled.
“You did so well on the first exam. Solid shot at a B, maybe even an A for the semester. And now this.”
“And you are a business major, right?”
“Have to have at least a C in all major classes, including this one.”
“With perfect score on the final exam, you will only get a D. Not good enough for your major. You will have to repeat the class.”
Silence for several seconds. “Any explanation for what went wrong?”
David stared at the floor, tears welling up in his eyes. “No, sir.”
The professor shrugged. “Well, that’s all I have.”
David nodded, turned and started walking back up the steps.
David turned back to face the professor. “Yes, sir.”
“You would have had a much better grade if you had had the other exam.”
David froze and eyed the professor. “Sir?”
“Did you know there was more than one exam?”
David shook his head. “I thought all classes used the same exam?”
The professor nodded. “We do. We ask the same questions. But the answers are scrambled. Appear in different orders. At the top of your answer sheet, you write down your exam number. That number is a code that tells us which exam you had.”
“You know the really funny part?”
The professor looked David in the eyes. “If you had had another exam, almost all of your answers would have been correct. Imagine the coincidence of that.”
David gulped. “Sir?”
“You know I even checked. Pulled out your actual exam copy to make sure you had written down the right code number. Read a few questions to make sure we hadn’t miscoded it. But you had the correct exam. You just gave answers to an exam you didn’t have. Wonder how that happened?”
“I, uh, don’t know, sir.”
“Next semester, when you are taking this class again, don’t repeat the mistake. Got it?”
David exited the building and took the long walk across the dark campus to his fraternity house.