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ACS Exams Institute offers ‘nonsecure’ versions of its general and organic chemistry exams

One-time tests can be taken by students learning remotely during the coronavirus pandemic

by Celia Henry Arnaud
April 29, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 17

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Credit: ACS

Chemistry departments use tests from the American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Education Examinations Institute for many reasons. At Miami University, in Ohio, for example, the exams are used to compare performance across multiple sections and the university’s three campuses. “The ACS exam is only one data point on one given day, so we don’t use that as the total way that we evaluate,” but it is a key piece of information, says Michael W. Crowder, chair of the chemistry department.

So many US chemistry professors breathed a sigh of relief when the Exams Institute announced that it had found a way to administer the tests to students at home by creating a nonsecure version of its general and organic chemistry exams. Professors had been worried that the ACS exams would become another yearly tradition canceled by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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The Exams Institute has strict rules for how departments must handle the tests, says Kristen L. Murphy, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and director of the Exams Institute. Chemistry departments keep paper copies locked up, and students take the tests under the watchful eyes of proctors to prevent stolen exams and cheating. Even online versions have to be given on university-owned computers in a strictly monitored setting.

Such tight security measures aren’t possible under remote learning conditions, so the Exams Institute prohibited departments from using the usual exams this spring.

“We knew we had to do something to provide testing options for people,” Murphy says. To provide those options, the Exams Institute started with items from its study materials and used them as the basis for producing nonsecure, one-time-only versions of its exams. Nearly 500 departments have signed up to give the nonsecure exams, Murphy says.

The usual process for writing a new exam takes a committee 2 years, Murphy says, but the institute produced sets of questions for general chemistry and organic chemistry, its most popular exams, in only 3 weeks. The question pools include more than 300 questions for the two courses, coded by semester, topic, and difficulty. Departments can load the questions into their learning management systems. The questions have to be deleted by the end of June.

“I value ACS as the standard for chemistry education at undergraduate institutions,” says Stephen Leonard, a chemistry professor at Indiana Wesleyan University. “I really rely on using them as a benchmark to see how my classes are going.”

Evy Colon Garcia, a chemistry professor at Pikes Peak Community College, was relieved when she learned that the Exams Institute planned to offer a nonsecure version of its tests. “I couldn’t control anything else, but for me this was like a sense of normalcy,” she says. “Even if everything else goes bad, at least I have decided that just like every other semester, we’re doing the ACS final and that is tradition.”

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