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Lawrence Harmon

Optical collusion

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / July 15, 2010

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THE NEW England College of Optometry has a serious case of myopia. It failed to detect a cheating scandal on its Back Bay campus so widespread that the National Board of Examiners in Optometry has invalidated the licensure test scores for the entire Class of 2011.

Aberrant scores on the first part of a three-part test conducted in March caught the attention of national examiners who develop and administer the tests used by state regulators to license optometrists. In May, the North Carolina-based examiners’ group launched a full probe, including visits to the 450-student Boston campus. The investigation revealed that a “significant number of students’’ had engaged in “an organized attempt to memorize confidential, copyrighted exam content in order to reproduce it for use by other students taking future administrations of the exam.’’ More disturbing, the piracy scheme was undertaken “at the request and encouragement of a faculty member,’’ according to the board of examiners.

This isn’t some low-stakes cheating scandal on the part of people whose main function is to sell sporty eyewear and tinted contact lenses. Optometrists undergo four years of intensive study after their undergraduate studies. They diagnose and treat complicated eye disorders, including glaucoma and damage to the retina associated with diabetes. The cheating scandal undermines the academic program of the college and causes the public to think twice about entrusting its vision to an optometrist.

The “how’’ of this scandal is more visible than the “why.’’ Some test questions on national exams are often similar in both form and content from year to year. By assigning willing students to memorize questions, it becomes possible to reconstruct the entire exam, according to Dr. Jack Terry, executive director of the National Board of Examiners. Neither the college nor the examiners have divulged the name of the professor suspected of encouraging the cheating ring. But Terry said his investigators uncovered no evidence that any money changed hands.

Instead, the motive for the memorization scheme suggests a culture of dishonesty in which the current class benefits from the test theft of the previous class, and then passes on questions to the next class via the college’s internal website. Examiners believe the process got underway with the Class of 2009. But they will be probing further back and extending the investigation to other colleges of optometry, according to Terry.

Ethical values at the New England College of Optometry, which has trained about 70 percent of the region’s optometrists, are looking blurry. Dr. Clifford Scott, president of the college, said there is often “a fine line between a study guide and an organized plan to memorize questions.’’ In this case, however, it’s pretty obvious that some of his students and one of his faculty members not only crossed that line, but stomped all over it. Scott expressed legitimate concern for honest students whose scores were invalidated. National examiners have not cited how many students in the roughly 100-member class were involved. But the “widespread exposure’’ of pirated items left them little choice but to invalidate scores for the entire class.

Terry said all the students will be given a chance to take a revamped examination in August. But the examiners’ board, he said, reserves the right to invalidate future scores and bar suspected students from taking additional sections of the test needed to secure their licenses. Meanwhile, there could be recent graduates of the college who cheated on their license tests and are now practicing. The state Board of Registration in Optometry, which licenses new optometrists, owes it to the public to find that out.

Another area for inquiry is whether the college is trying to bump up its pass rates on the licensing test as a means to compete for students. The college won’t release those rates, making it look like an institution that guards test scores more closely than its integrity. Scott did say, however, that faculty evaluations are not linked to student performance on the licensing test.

High-stakes exams like licensing tests create strong motivation to cheat. Whether willfully or unintentionally, officials at the College of Optometry didn’t see what was taking place before their very eyes. The only way to correct that flaw is to get rid of the cheaters and those who condone them.

Contact Lawrence Harmon at harmon@globe.com.

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