The Recycled Problem of Recycled Exams

Shaun Parsons (2L)

Midway through the Winter term of my 1L year, rumours began to circulate about a recycled exam. In the well-publicized saga that followed, it came to light that at least one student had access to a practice exam that looked very similar to the actual final.

Being a student on the other side was heart-wrenching. I felt outraged. Effectively, we were graded on circumstances external to the course. Countless hours were sunk into our studies only for a massive and preventable confounding factor that challenged the meritocracy of law school. I felt paranoid. Maybe someone that I know had the exam and refused to share it. I felt like an idiot. If only I had spent more time digging in the annals of prior exams maybe I would have done better. Maybe that would have put me on an even playing field. But how even would that playing field have been? I feared for my future job prospects. I vowed that if I was ever on the other side and advantaged, I would step forward immediately.

Less than a year later, that opportunity arose. My final exam looked suspiciously like a practice exam received from an acquaintance at another school. ‘Suspiciously’ is a generous term. The exams were more twins than siblings.

To survive law school without burning out, cynical and jaded, I think you have to trust in the system. You sacrifice balance. You sacrifice sleep. Exam season is a stress-induced blur, where doing your laundry is best described as guilt-panged. Exam season doesn’t start until you see someone you faintly remember from torts quietly sobbing in the library. Exam season doesn’t start until you look around Bora Laskin to gauge whether anyone will see tears roll down your face if you momentarily stop holding it together. We experience a lot of stress in law school, and we knew it would be this way when we signed up. Still, for at least two months out of the year, our happiness graphs are at rock bottom. It’s not all bad, but it’s work. I want to make these sacrifices in an institution I am proud of.

I don’t know if I’m still proud of U of T law.

The day after the exam, I met with the administrationwell, the administration that would meet with me. I thought they would want to know about the recycling. I thought there would be some concern. I thought someone would act, or at least humour my concerns.

I was told that reusing an old exam isn’t grossly inequitable. I was told there wasn’t proof there were enough people who accessed this practice exam to meaningfully affect the grade. Didn’t it occur to me that maybe I was at a disadvantage now that I was overconfident? Was I sure the changes weren’t material? When I said I thought it was inappropriate, I was told I was wrong: not that it wasn’t inappropriate, just that I was wrong. Why did I even ask for this meeting? What did I want? Somehow it was incomprehensible that I didn’t have an ulterior motive.

If this wasn’t grossly inequitable, what does grossly inequitable even mean? A study group spent five hours discussing what turned out to be the final exam. Advanced access to the exam was only possible through a link to another school. When I started the exam, I opened the exam booklet, saw the first sentence, and immediately began to write. I didn’t stop for three hours. I didn’t need to think. I didn’t need to plan. I luckily designed my map around the practice exam. I just had to follow it and scan the fact set for any possible changes. Would you characterize this exam as fair?

I had a clear benefit going into the exam. I didn’t plan for the benefit; I lucked into it. But inequity doesn’t need intent. I had a weekend to think over the exam. I effectively had dozens of hours to write it.

I’ve been questioning the integrity of the school a lot since that exam. All I know is that I got a grade I didn’t deserve because I made the right friends. That, to me, is pretty inequitable.