A Book and Its Cover.
I was recently part of a scoring panel for an essay competition for middle-school students. We didn’t have that many entries to begin with, so the process wasn’t all together time-consuming.
Part of the process included reviewing the essays, stack-and-rack them from first to fifth place based on the rubric provided, and provided an explanation for my decision.
There was one essay that was clearly outstanding. This eight-grade student was using terminology, sentence structure and essay composition style that was well above her age and expectation. She made “first” on my list.
Part of the panel included educators who worked with students regularly. One had more than 10-years of experience with middle school students. She left the room during the scoring process. I didn’t exactly know why, but during the discussion I found out that she had concerns that the essay was plagiarized because it was so well-written.
She did a search online for evidence of the student possibly copying and pasting paragraphs from a report, but couldn’t find anything beyond a word or phrases here and there.
To be honest, plagiarism didn’t occur to me at all. I read the essay for what it was; a piece submitted by a middle-school student. However, I did assume that the student may have had help from her parents since the language structure, verbiage and complex analysis were exceptional.
Both teachers were concerned, rightly so, because they work with students year-round, whereas I didn’t. Being the usual devil’s advocate, I countered their argument by indicating that there are exceptional students who don’t meet the typical expectation of their age group. It was possible that this student was well-read or had exceptional language comprehension.
I was that student in Malaysia. My language and writing skills in Malay were by far better than native speakers and writers. That’s what my teachers and examiners often told me. I didn’t want to assume the worst although I did have my own suspicions, in that the student had help.
Both educators were less than agreeable with my assessment and because they were teachers, and had more direct experience with the students. Based on their knowledge, a student this “age” and “grade” couldn’t be this talented. It was a logical assumption. I did agree to pull that essay aside and score the remaining four since we couldn’t ascertain the authenticity of the essay.
My search online for possible plagiarized text wasn’t successful either since I couldn’t find any direct evidence that she was pulling “copy and paste” material from her sources. Because I had my reservations (and I think they did after I expressed my concerns in my usual direct way), the teacher offered to speak with the academic facilitator from the school to get more feedback.
I’m getting to the point.
The following day, my counterpart at the local school district calls me. It turned out that the student is well-read, a brilliant student with solid vocabulary that would put most college graduates to shame. The academic facilitator who has worked with the student for three years, also told the coordinator I was working with that the student’s parents are hands-off and this is her original work.
She wrote the essay and submitted it to her teacher for review. Minor edits were made and the essay was submitted for the competition.
The teacher I was working with was surprised and a little taken aback. She was also the one who was quite sure (and adamant) that this student couldn’t have written the essay. It was a good lesson to “not judge a book by its cover.”
Had we not done our due diligence (or insisted on it), this student would have gotten her essay tossed out and we would have awarded first place to another child. Professionally, it was a healthy exercise in making sure that our bias, expectations, and perceptions can be wrong.