Can you keep cheaters from hurting you?

They say that cheaters only hurt themselves. In all honesty, I think that a cheater said that and we believed him. It is often the case that cheaters hurt the people who gave them the test more than themselves. If you are responsible for giving tests, some fool will eventually cheat on your test. How you handle cheating incidents can make or break you.

When you started out in your career and you began giving tests, you probably didn’t imagine that the most demanding aspect of your job might be what to do about cheating. The first time you encounter this and when the media spotlight is focused on you, you will probably wish you were a rattlesnake handler or a bomb disposal expert. You create and give tests. And, you’re good at your job. You never intended to become a test cop. Let me suggest that you anticipate and prepare for cheating incidents now, before they happen. We call it security incident response planning.

Speaking of cops, there have been a number of stories concerning police departments and cheating on tests recently. In the summer of 2007, information about the police promotion test in Boston was leaked to several officers, as reported by WBZTV. In another story, theState.com reported that twenty-one police officers in Columbia, South Carolina were implicated in cheating when they either cheated, helped others to cheat, or knew of the cheating but failed to report it. And, Houston’s crime lab was in the news twice for open-book cheating, which resulted in the shutdown of the lab, as reported by the Houston Chronicle on October 6, 2007, and January 26, 2008.

The above stories illustrate the importance of responding appropriately to cheating incidents and testing irregularities. You will not be judged harshly because a few miscreants decided to cheat on your test. But, you may be embarrassed completely if you do not address the problem adequately. Your program may suffer a loss of credibility. The public confidence in those you certify may be eroded. And, adding insult to injury, the media may portray you as a fool and a blunderer.

Your security incident response plan should be suited to your organization’s needs and requirements. There are a lot of questions that you should answer. Let me list a few:

  1. What discipline should the cheater(s) receive?
  2. Is the discipline appropriate? If it’s too harsh you may be perceived as being unfair. If it’s too lenient you may be judged as playing favorites.
  3. When will you inform the public about the security breach?
  4. What will you do if the media learns of the breach before you announce it? Or, before you learn of it?
  5. Is an investigation needed?
  6. If so, how will the investigation be conducted? Who will conduct the investigation?
  7. What information will you share with the media?
  8. What information will you keep confidential? What justification do you have for not sharing everything?
  9. Who will be responsible for communications and media relations?
  10. Is your security incident response plan recorded in policy form to guide you?

As you can see, my list focuses on “doing the right thing” not just on “looking like we are doing the right thing.” Reporters, in particular, are very quick to suspect a cover up or to suspect they are not being told the truth. And, if you are responsible for a testing program which is accountable to the public (e.g., tests in schools or tests involving public safety), it is vital that you maintain the public trust.

One way that you can sharpen your skills in this area is to “simulate” what you would do in specific cheating situations. During the course of a year, just about every type of cheating will be reported in the news. You can stay current with these stories by reading Caveon’s “Cheating in the News.” You can sign up to receive CITN notification by e-mail about twice a month on the lower right-hand corner of the main Caveon web page. Read the stories. Discuss the stories with your staff. Does your security incident response plan tell you how to handle the problem, if it happened to you?

Just as we expect our local emergency response teams (i.e., police, firefighters, and paramedics) to prepare for disasters, we should prepare to handle cheating incidents. A properly executed security incident response plan can keep an incident from becoming a disaster.

Ten years ago the New York Times criticized ETS, claiming that ETS elected to keep quiet rather than publicize exam security breaches. When you, as a testing program manager, have a full-scale security breach on your hands what will you do? I can imagine that it was a very difficult decision within ETS whether to “keep the lid on” the story or to let the story be told. This appears to be a “no-win” situation. If you publicize the security breaches you may seriously undermine your testing program. If you keep quiet and the word leaks out, like it invariably does, your own credibility may be questioned.

Read stories of cheating in the news to learn how the media might portray your cheating incident negatively. Journalists print newspapers and sell advertising. Sensational news is good copy for them. It is especially important, when under spotlight of the press, that your testing program be viewed as being fair, responsible, and ethical. In my experience, reporters will probe for any apparent contradictions, irregularities which could have been avoided, or supposed dismissal of the severity of the situation. If they find any thing that might be construed as an irregularity, it will probably be printed. In my opinion, it’s better to tell your own story first, rather than let reporters interpret the situation in a potentially harmful manner.

I wish you the best as you formulate your security incident response plan. If you could use additional guidance in preparing your security incident response plan, a Caveon test security director will be glad to consult with you.

Dennis Maynes

Chief Scientist, Caveon Test Security

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