Opting out

Being a graduate student at PSU can be difficult – the classes are hard, the hours long, the tuition steep. Graduate students may also find themselves facing another obstacle: a foreign language requirement that must be met before they can complete their graduate degree. Many students enter their M.A. programs ill advised regarding the foreign language requirement, and then find themselves set back, both financially and in terms of time, by the need to complete it.

For these students, the requirement adds one or more terms of school, and a large chunk of tuition, to their graduate education. To avoid spending money for extra tuition by taking extra foreign language classes, some students said they have gone to extremes to meet the requirement by testing out – including cheating.

“I didn’t have an undergrad adviser,” said student A. “No one in our program does, not unless you go out and find one on your own. No one really explained the foreign language requirement to me. I didn’t fully understand it until after I was admitted to the grad program, and it screwed up all of my plans.”

Student A – and all graduate students quoted in this story – spoke about the Spanish challenge exam and spoke on conditions of anonymity; all are or were enmeshed in foreign language qualifications and were fearful that their interviews might jeopardize the process.

Meeting the foreign language requirement can be accomplished in one of several ways.

The student must pass the equivalent of a 203-level PSU foreign language class, pass a foreign language class at PSU at the 203 level or above, or successfully pass a CLEP exam or the Graduate Student Foreign Language Test.

Once admitted to the M.A. program, many students are surprised by the foreign language requirement, and end up scrambling to work it into the two-year course of graduate study.

Graduate students who decide to enroll in real-time foreign language classes to meet the requirement must pay graduate-level tuition for 100- and 200-level language classes.

Where a year of undergraduate language classes cost an Oregon resident $1,083, the same classes cost $2,307 at graduate rates.

Graduate students, used to small classes and intense personal instruction, may be stymied by lower-division language classes, which occur in large groups and are often mostly online, in laboratory settings.

Unable to afford the time and expense of adding two years of language classes into their graduate curriculum, a large number of M.A. students opt to qualify via the Graduate Student Foreign Language Test (GSFLT). But this has its own set of problems.

The GSFLT is only given once a month, on the first Friday. No reservation is needed – students simply show up and are signed in.

The first part of the multiple-choice test is vocabulary; the second part is reading comprehension. For the comprehension portion, students select from three areas: social science, natural science and humanities. They are presented with a piece of foreign language text, and respond to questions about it.

“It’s a terrible test,” Student A said. “It’s supposed to test your fluency in terms of whether you’d be able to test out of 203. But the whole first section is in idioms, which nobody even uses.”

In order to pass, students must score 33 percent on the GSFLT. Many don’t pass the first time.

The test uses a combination of positive and negative scoring, with points subtracted for each wrong answer.

“You have to be pretty sure you know the answer before filling in the answer,” said Student B. “Otherwise, it’s safer to leave it blank – you lose fewer points that way.”

The GSFLT costs only $2 to take and may be repeated as often as necessary. Students may request a pre-test practice sheet from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, but many students say the sheet is unreadable

“The practice sheet has been photocopied like 82,000 times,” Student B said. “The t’s now look like i’s. The page is crooked, and a lot of the words are cut off. What’s there, you can’t read.”

Many students who have taken the GSFLT believed it to be unnecessarily difficult, and well beyond the scope of second-year studies.

“The front page of the test says it’s from the 1972 GRE,” Student B said. “It’s always the same test – it’s never updated. And it’s the GRE, so it’s geared for a fourth-year language equivalent, which makes no sense as we only have to pass 203-level.”

The test itself is non-proctored and students are allowed to carry scratch paper into and out of the testing room. Many deal with their frustration over the flawed system by copying down the questions and multiple-choice answers and using them to study for the next go-round.

“I took the online practice test and failed,” Student B said. “I studied hard for the challenge test, but I failed it, too. I don’t have time to take the classes before I graduate, so I’m going to have to keep taking the test over again until I pass.”

When Student B was asked if he would cheat on the GSFLT if he failed again, he couldn’t answer.

“I don’t really want to, but I suppose there’s always the possibility,” he said. “I’m getting desperate.”

Student C took the test so many times that he feared he would set a record for number of failures. He finally passed, but only after copying down the test material during one exam session and carrying it out in his pocket. By the time he finally passed the test and had his exams approved, he’d had to add on two extra terms of school, costing him several thousand dollars.

“I personally feel like, if you’ve got to cheat, cheat,” Student A said. “Learning a foreign language isn’t why most of us are here, after all. If our only options are to cheat or to have to stay on longer and pay another $10,000 of grad tuition, well, you know what most people will do.”