Risk Management: Catch Me If You Can, the Top Ten Cheaters on High Stakes Exam

Originally published in Certification Magazine, 2/2005

Do you know who is cheating on your exam? You’ll be amazed at the many ways that people try to cheat. Cheating on tests is a widespread problem. It’s unfair to the majority of honorable test takers as

  • cheaters don’t actually acquire the skills/knowledge to perform a given task,
  • cheating undermines the value of testing as a protection mechanism and
  • cheating threatens the viability of a testing program.

Who are they and what can you do about it? Here’s the cast of characters:

1 – Time Traveler

2 – Robin Hood

3 – Hacker

  • The Impersonator is also known as the proxy test taker who takes a test on behalf of someone else.
  • The Smuggler brings materials or devices into the test setting which enables him to cheat. Some of these devices include hidden cameras, calculators, cell phones, minute pieces of paper, water bottles, and handwritten answers on the bottom of shoes, hands, and legs.
  • The Storyteller memorizes test items only to ‘retell’ them later to others. This individual takes an exam multiple times and memorizes a few items in each testing session. She may just inform a few colleagues or sell what she knows over the internet
  • The Chain Gang is a group of individuals or an organization that collects, memorizes and sells items, typically through the Internet.
  • The Time Traveler shares test questions, keys, and similar test content from one time zone to another. This is a major problem for same day test administration in paper-and-pencil testing.
  • The Collaborators use test taking strategies to provide responses to groups of test takers. They strategically place themselves amongst the examinees.
  • Robin Hood is the teacher or other grader that reviews answer sheets for a paper-and-pencil-based test and “fixes” responses to clarify what the student/examinee really intended, He gives answers to the “poorer” students to inflate their test standings or inflate passing rates.
  • The Hacker infiltrates computer systems to gain access to test items and answers and final test scores.
  • The Ticket Scalper sits for an exam’s beta test for the sole purpose of obtaining a free test voucher which is then resold for a profit, She may retake the beta test several times to acquire items.
  • The Insider & the Fence participate in the development or administration of the exams and take advantage of their access to test items by selling them to others.

Now that I know who these people are, what can I do about it? I have provided a list below of some of the best practices that you can likely do with your own internal resources:

  • Monitor advertisements in newspapers
  • Watch electronic auction houses
  • Create a security tips line
  • Develop and implement a compelling security training and awareness program
  • Put sound policies in place such as:
    • Confidential disclosure agreements for vendors
    • Non-disclosure agreements for examinees
    • Qualification standards for participants
    • Requirement that candidates’ ID and signature be  verified at time of testing event
  • Engage in sound test design practices
  • Use intelligent scheduling and retake policies
  • Verify the security of your IT systems (e.g., firewalls and access control/monitoring)
  • Develop solid beta/field test designs (e.g. don’t allow field testers to sit for the  beta exam more than once)
  • Monitor item performance over time

In some cases, you may need to engage external resources to strengthen your test security practices. I have listed a handful of some of the best practices where you may need assistance from external resources:

  • For paper-n-pencil exams, conduct an erasure analysis
  • For paper-n-pencil exams, require closer monitoring of answer sheets and test booklets
  • Develop better proctor training, awareness and monitoring with an eye on security
  • Hire secret shoppers for certification tests administered around the world
  • Evaluate your test security practices and develop a security plan
  • Monitor the internet for stolen test items
  • Conduct advanced statistical analyses to detect test fraud and cheating (e.g. data forensics)
  • Use biometrics during test administration

We’ve provided some ideas on how to combat cheating and test fraud, but you should still be on the lookout for the Ten ‘Most Wanted’ Cheaters. You won’t find their photographs hanging in the post office, but there are many clues in your test development practices, testing data, and program policies that can help you find them.