By Jeff Balke
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All the tension of college testing builds up inside the small room. Students file in, write their names at the sign-in table, pick up their exams and take seats in the tiny uncomfortable chairs with the desk tops.
One or two sip coffee or soda, but most just stare undisturbed at their tests under the ceiling of stained tiles. Perpetually drawn blinds limit the illumination, but every time another student walks in, a burst of sunlight rushes through the opened doorway, jolting students from their silent meditation.
There are hundreds of questions and not much time.
An exam on the principles of microeconomics, for example, covers questions ranging from calculating the consumer price index to citing the reasons for Germany's economic depression of the 1920s.
But no one is writing any answers -- in fact, in this room filled with tests, all writing is banned. So are calculators.
There are facilitators on hand, serving as sentries to enforce the ban on talking. There's so much to digest, so much opportunity for confusion, but these facilitators aren't there to answer questions. They aren't there to help.
They're just there to collect cash.
At A-Plus Review, nestled between Domino's Pizza and a student bookstore in a strip mall near the University of Houston, students drop $30 to $40 for the privilege to stare at tests in hopes of memorizing the questions and answers. They can't take notes on the material, can't crack a textbook and, as a sign on the front window warns, they're subject to search each time they come and go.
While A-Plus's owner says his service won't tolerate any cheating, some college professors say the company is based on the very definition of cheating.
Over the last five years, A-Plus has become an academic Hail Mary for students and a pain in the honor code for local universities. Representatives of UH, Rice and Texas Southern University aren't sure how owner Shaik Ahmed gets what he calls his test prep packets, which can include copies of exams used in college courses.
Ahmed, who has a degree in biochemistry from UH, hedges in answers about the sources for his material. Ahmed says that when a student brings him a test, he doesn't ask where it came from. He just assumes it's not stolen.
Inside A-Plus, employees present anxious students with copies of notes, term papers and tests from dozens of UH classes. Ahmed also says he has material to help students at Houston's four other primary universities.
Whether the material truly helps seems to be incidental.
UH student Buffy Brotherton is a repeat customer, even though the company didn't get her the grades she hoped for. She says that A-Plus is well known around the campus and that many of her friends use it.
Last Tuesday afternoon, 19-year-old Brotherton paid $30 to soak up questions for an upcoming biology exam, hoping to get her money's worth this time.
"It's just a matter of going in there and memorizing, like, 200 questions," says Brotherton, who's thinking about majoring in education.
She says she's not learning anything, she's just staring at the questions. Too intimidated to check out the school's learning centers, which provide free help from grad students who are familiar with the coursework, Brotherton pays for a service she admits doesn't help.
UH spokesman Mike Cinelli says that any student who has access to test answers before the exam is guilty of cheating, and that the university doesn't condone that aspect of A-Plus. He says the university had to chase A-Plus off campus years ago when the company was violating UH advertising policies in soliciting students. When A-Plus was banned from on-campus advertising, it parked a big logo-plastered van on a street just off the main campus, he says.
UH professors also complained about A-Plus employees slipping into their classrooms each semester, leaving flyers on desks and writing ads on their blackboards. Some profs say A-Plus is an A-Plus rip-off and a gross exploitation of desperate students who may already be in debt.
When psychology professor Richard A. Kasschau heard that the company had copies of tests that he freely gave his students, he put a copyright notice on every test. It warned that students could copy the tests only for themselves and for the benefit of other students.
"Anything that the students are paying for over there is provided for free here on campus," Kasschau says. "They're simply putting overhead on students' already high overhead costs, allegedly in the name of education and I sure as hell do not [endorse it]."
When asked about Kasschau's copyrighted tests, Ahmed says he doesn't charge students for any of Kasschau's material.
Joe McCauley, a physics professor, was shocked to learn the company was peddling old tests he kept on file for students to review. He says he's going to tell his students to save their money and get a copy directly from him.
"It's really disgusting," he says. "This is scalping this is a small Enron-type mentality: Scrape what you can off the top and to hell with anybody who's got any problem with it."
Geology professor Peter Copeland, who doesn't allow copies of his tests outside the classroom, says he often has to rewrite tests for fear that they may wind up at A-Plus.
"The reason I have to do it is because someone has stolen my work and perverted the system," Copeland says.
But Ahmed describes his style as more utopian than Enron-esque. He likens A-Plus to the Princeton Review and Kaplan tutoring programs. Saying America is a place where "everybody helps everybody out," Ahmed claims his intent is only to help students.
Those who bring him the tests don't receive cash, but they do get discounted rates from A-Plus. If some profs don't allow their tests to be taken out of the classroom, then how could Ahmed get those exams if they weren't pilfered?
"This is a good question," he says. "Am I the one to ask, 'Did you steal this from somebody?' I'm no one to judge anybody. I don't play God."
He says that even Best Buy shoppers can't be 100 percent sure they're not bringing home a stolen TV. But if somehow God signaled to Ahmed that a test was indeed stolen, he says, he would not buy it.
Ahmed says he was a UH tutor in the early to mid-'90s, when he and other tutors turned their talents into a commercial enterprise. They rented conference rooms in the on-campus Hilton and conducted their own after-hours sessions for students. That led to the creation of A-Plus, which expanded to Lubbock last summer to help Texas Tech students.
While UH officials shun A-Plus, there is a connection of sorts between them. The university's Center for Mexican-American Studies pays Ahmed's brother Saquib, a chemistry teacher at Milby High School, to tutor their students. He conducts his $8-an-hour sessions at A-Plus, although UH pays him directly, rather than through the company.
Rebecca Trevino, manager of the center's Urban Experiences Program, says the tutoring sessions pay off -- students who attend Saquib's reviews tend to perform well on tests.
Brotherton is hoping the same will hold true for her this time around. She doesn't consider what she's doing cheating, and she doesn't believe Ahmed is exploiting her.
So she'll continue to pay her $30, hoping that eventually it will pay off. And if she has an inquiry about one of the questions she's trying to memorize, well, that's her tough luck.
"I don't know if I would really rely on them knowing [the material], because they're not in the class," she says. "So pretty much you're on your own."