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Dreaded 'Blue Books' May Go the Way of Quill Pens

Education: Anti-cheating software is allowing schools to replace traditional paper exam pamphlets with laptops.


Remember the blue book in college?

No, not the one quoting resale prices of used cars.

Rather, think of the skinny booklet with those dreaded empty pages of lined paper that you had to fill during final exams. You spent hours hunched over them, furiously scribbling answers to essay questions. As the clock wound down, you bore down so hard the pen left a dent in your finger. Remember now?

Well, those exam booklets, after torturing college students with writer's cramp for almost 150 years, may finally be on the way out.

They're being replaced, of course, by the floppy disk.

Students at more than 100 universities--mostly those in law school--can now use their laptop computers to take midterm and final exams. They simply type answers onto the "virtual blue book" disk, which they hand in when the exam is over.

The list of universities using disks grows every week, as professors learn of software that blocks test takers from retrieving information or answers from personal files. Equipped with the same level of encryption security used by the Federal Reserve Bank, the software makes cheating impossible.

To students wedded to their laptops, the breakthrough offers blessed relief.

"I'm a bad typist but my handwriting is worse," said Jennifer Hughes, a student at USC School of Law. "If I had to write exams by hand, it would make me look like a 13-year-old. I would die of embarrassment."

Professors prefer it too. A computer printout is a welcome reprieve from the loathsome chore of grading that often seems more akin to archeology: trying to decipher the hieroglyphics that students scrawl on their exams.

"Even though I don't want to be biased, I can't help but share my love of reading a nice, neat exam," said USC law professor Eric Talley.

To be sure, computerized testing has long been forecast as the wave of the future. But its use has been held in check by fear of cheating. It's just too easy to pull up some answers or notes from the hard drive and tack them onto the exam with a few mouse clicks.

The Educational Testing Service, famous for its bubble answer cards on standardized tests, recently switched to computers for graduate school entrance exams--the GRE and the GMAT--which now include essay questions. But students are restricted to taking these tests on secured computers at Sylvan Learning Centers.

"Who knows what devilry they would get into if people brought their own computers," said Tom Ewing, ETS spokesman.

But such mischief-making is no longer possible with software pioneered by a start-up company in San Francisco called ExamSoft. For last semester's finals, ExamSoft provided disks for 50,000 essay exams around the country. This spring the number will double.

All this seems to mark the beginning of the end of the blue book, the long-standing emblem of the much feared essay exam.

Harvard Introduced Booklets in 1857

It was 1857 when Harvard's faculty and Board of Overseers approved the first use of blue books in the New World.

The rationale was that this was a better test of a student's analytic and writing skills than the traditional oral exams, said John R. Thelin, a University of Kentucky historian.

By 1865, Yale fell into line with written exams. Blue books spread from there.

Why blue?

Michele V. Cloonan has a theory. As chairwoman of UCLA's Department of Library and Information Science, she believes they evolved from the cheaply produced, paper-covered school books, almanacs and novels known as the bibliotheque bleue, or blue library, in 18th century France.

Before the invention of chlorine bleach in 1774 revolutionized paper production, white books had to be made from white rags. Blue books came from blue rags, often from the old clothes of sailors. Blue paper was the cheap stuff, used for the covers of throwaway books.

Indeed, blue books remain cheap, costing between 20 cents and 40 cents depending on the number of pages. The most popular form is eight sheets of lined paper folded in half and stapled with a blue cover. Voila! A 16-page booklet.

"It's the cheapest way to construct a writing book," said Jim Lucey, manufacturing director of Roaring Springs Blank Book Co. The family-owned company, which opened in Roaring Springs, Pa., 112 years ago, is one of three remaining major manufacturers. It produces 15 million to 20 million booklets a year. And, as Lucey notes, "They still have blue covers on 99% of them."

Blue books have inspired angst, jitters and even campus lore, which isn't surprising given what it takes to fill them: a semester's worth of knowledge that will probably determine a final grade.

There's the story of the tough classics professor at Brown who had a soft spot for intercollegiate hockey. Varsity squad members were advised to draw a pair of crossed hockey sticks on the cover of their blue books if they wanted a sure-fire A.

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