Final Exam Fail?

Health sciences final exam question on gangs, race and graffiti rubs some the wrong way at Cal State Long Beach. Now the professor is under investigation.

December 17, 2018
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California State University at Long Beach is reportedly investigating an instructor who included a question about gangs and graffiti on a health sciences final exam after a student publicly complained it was racist.

In between two questions about sexually transmitted diseases, lecturer Matt Fischer asked the following on the 75-question take-home exam:

“Which of the following gangs generally do the least graffiti? A. Black. B. Asian. C. Hispanic. D. White.”

A student tweeted a picture of the question last week, saying, “A taste of the kind of idiocy I’ve been dealing with in my health science education class. This is a question on my final exam … [I don't know] what the answer is or what it’s supposed to be.”

The student didn’t immediately allege that the question was racist. But he said he didn’t recall discussing gangs in class and didn’t understand how gang graffiti was relevant to a class on adolescent health for future high school teachers.

Commenters soon swarmed the post and connected the student’s dots, explicitly calling the question racist and demanding that Fischer explain himself.

In later public comments, including to the local Press-Telegram, the student, Alex Rambo, said, “The question was pretty offensive” on racial grounds. Rambo, who is black, reportedly said he felt that Fischer, who is white, was targeting minorities.

Rambo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Via email, Fischer said Sunday that his course includes questions about health that "teachers may encounter during their careers as secondary educators." Topics include social and emotional learning, conflict resolution, recognizing and reporting suspected abuse, drug use, and bullying, he said.

The query in question referred “to one of the leading causes of death (homicide due to gang violence) among teens,” Fischer added, saying that the answer is Asian gangs. “Asian gangs are less likely to tag/write graffiti as they typically do not claim a geographical territory as some other gangs may.”

A 2016 analysis of decades of state homicide data by The Sacramento Bee found that youth murders peaked during the gang violence of the early 1990s and then dropped off, but that more than 100 children are still murdered in California each year. The most common motive for youth murders was gang violence, the analysis also found. Among cities, youth murders were most common in Compton, inland from Long Beach. And there was a racial dimension to the findings: blacks were nine times as likely as whites to be a youth murder victim and Hispanics were nearly three times as likely as whites to be a youth murder victim. Nationally, homicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 10-24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But even if gangs are a public health issue of national and especially local import, it appears Fischer may not have done enough to connect those dots for his students. He’s since said that he never intended harm with his question and that he’ll change it going forward. On Sunday, however, he said that gangs were discussed in class as being a contributor to youth homicide rates. The phrasing of the question -- the only one on gangs -- required students to do some of their own research on the topic on the take-home exam, he said.

Jeff Bliss, a university spokesperson, said last week that Cal State Long Beach “takes these allegations seriously.” The Press-Telegram reported that Fischer’s dean had asked the health sciences chair to investigate the matter.

Fischer told Inside Higher Ed that in today’s teaching and learning environment, things can go “‘viral’ without consideration of context/facts/intent.”

While he would have preferred Rambo “share his concerns directly with me during class or via email/phone call, the First Amendment affords Mr. Rambo freedom of speech extending to his social media accounts,” he said. “I completely respect this freedom.”


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