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Posted by Allie McCabe
updated over a week ago
Why cheating on exams hurts not just the cheater, not just the testing program, but our whole society.
What are tests if not tools of measurement? If you want to know how much a student knows about a classroom subject, give them a test. If you want to know whether that doctor is capable and qualified to perform that surgery, give them a test. If you want to know whether a candidate is qualified to practice law and represent clients—you guessed it—give them a test.
At its best, testing is a barometer, a measurement, a reflection of skills that benefits all of society.
Unfortunately, testing isn’t always “at its best.”
What have we seen recently?
Indeed, when we look at how testing currently plays out in our society, we see a reflection of our wider collective reality: racism still plagues us; economic disparities put many of us on uneven ground; and the scammers, system-gamers, and bad actors of the world will still stop at nothing to get a leg up.
Think about it. Every single day, people cheat on their taxes, in their businesses, and even in their marriages. Scandals still exist around doping in sports. Internet and phone scams lurk around every digital corner. The reality is that the unfairness of fraud and inequity exists all around us, all the time. Testing is no different. Not only can testing show us the reflection of the racism, gender bias, economic disparity, and general ugliness of the world—testing itself can perpetuate and even introduce that kind of unfairness.
If we can bring ourselves to admit that sometimes testing can indeed be mishandled and misused as a negative force in society, perhaps then we can also come to realize that the inverse is true as well? What if we had the power to refocus this mammoth of measurement into a tool for positive change?
It is time for those of us who work in the assessment industry to step up and make it happen.
Later in this article, we’ll talk about ways we can do just that. But first, we’re going to need to talk about fairness (and unfairness) for a second.
We’ve reached a critical point here, so listen up.
There’s a pretty big difference between these two sources of unfairness that we’re going to discuss. They’re so different, in fact, that this blog is only going to address one of them—test fraud. We’ll talk about the other—accessibility limitations—in the next article.
I want to be explicit here—Caveon (my employer)—is a test security company. That means that our business model revolves around technology and services that secure tests. It’s not part of our everyday business, for example, to fix the technological gap among students. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not something we should care about—or try to address. However, it does mean that in this article, we are going to focus on what we know best. Specifically on the sources of unfairness in the left column—fraud. (The article queued up next will take a deep dive into barriers to accessibility in testing, specifically the use of testwiseness.)
Actions taken by bad actors who are deliberately attempting to boost their test scores at the expense of honest (non-cheating) examinees or make money off of individuals who do just that.
(Click here to read a white paper discussing these forms of test fraud in more detail.)
Barriers to entry for all people to accurately prove their skills and abilities.
(The next part of my four-part essay will address this specific kind of unfairness)
While both fraudulent activity and barriers to accessibility impact the fairness of our tests, these sources of unfairness manifest in very different ways. Therefore, we remedy them in different ways as well. It will help if we address them separately.
Let’s dive in.
Test fraud is a set of activities that are illegal, inappropriate, or against the rules. Test fraud can be categorized into one of two types: cheating or test piracy (i.e., theft or stealing).
Cheating is the most common type of test fraud. Any threat that is cheating can be quickly identified by its goal of increasing a test score beyond what would normally be earned. There are literally thousands of individual variations in ways to cheat, but it is useful to distill them into six categories. Those categories are described in detail in other Caveon papers and in at least one set of industry guidelines (ITC Guidelines on Test Security).
Methods of cheating include using memorized pre-knowledge of exam questions, hiring proxy test-taking services, and colluding with experts (like test administrators or proctors) during testing. Note: Does this type of side door for the wealthy and well-connected represent a source of unfairness in the broader world?
Test Theft is a similar but distinct category of test fraud. Test theft does not have the goal of increasing test scores at the time of testing. It represents activities intended to illicitly steal, capture, harvest, or otherwise obtain the questions and answers to a test. This harvested test content is then sold or shared with examinees to help them cheat.
Methods of test theft include recording or memorizing test questions and answers during an exam, obtaining test content from a program insider, and stealing test files from actual test administration servers. The various types of test theft are also distilled into six categories. You can view them all in this white paper.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture of test fraud. What do we see?
According to AcademicIntegrity.org, an updated study of a survey by Dr. Donald McCabe (no, no relation) found that 32% of undergraduate students and a whopping 64% of high-school-aged students surveyed freely admitted to cheating on a test at some point. This is not a stand-alone finding. There are many other such studies that show just how prevalent cheating is on our exams.
We are up against individuals (some of whom are intent on committing all types of test fraud for no good socially-acceptable reasons) and a general culture of acceptance of these wildly unfair circumstances. These fraudulent methods are no different, in a moral or ethical sense, from the people who would steal from your home, or take your car, or use skimmers on ATMs, or steal your identity. They hope to gain while you or others lose.
But wait—we’re not just up against the “Bad Guys.” There are others out there, too. These people may commit test fraud unwittingly or even with “good intentions” (e.g., trying to help a friend, buying an illicit braindump with the intention of buying above-board test prep materials, etc.). Unfortunately, regardless of the motives, these sources of unfairness impact us all.
To better understand these two types, let’s consider the example of a college biology final:
A biology class of 200 students is broken up into 50 study groups of 4 students each. All of these study groups choose different methods of preparing for the exam. It is common for students to go online to search for test prep materials.
In study group A, three of the four individuals are friends. They frequently (and knowingly) search illicit sites to find answer keys and other braindump materials to prepare for exams. This biology final is no different. Therefore, all four of the students in the study group obtain higher scores than they would have rightfully earned.
In study group B, one student is tasked with finding study guide materials online. This student unwittingly stumbles upon an answer key disguised as an above-board study manual. Bringing it back to the group, the student is unaware that they’re now all cheating. Still, knowing what questions and answers they’ll see on the test, all four students in group B obtain higher scores than they would have rightfully earned.
If only these two groups of individuals obtained unearned high scores, that’s still 8 out of 200 students, or 4% of the class, whose scores don’t reflect their true abilities. This feels like an unfair environment to try to study one’s own notes and give the exam an honest try, especially if a certain percentile at the top of the class receives opportunities that others do not.
This example also shows us how even behavior that’s harmless in its intent can have an adverse effect on the fairness of our testing environment.
Without testing and security professionals doing everything to stay one step ahead of those who would game the system, our tests are no longer fair. Those with money can buy their scores. Those without that financial comfort can rely on other measures of cheating and theft. Those honest test takers who aren’t planning to cheat or game the system get unfairly overlooked for jobs, credentials, salaries, and awards. Some may choose to not even participate—because what is the point? Why even try?
All of that is to say—without test security, we can’t have fairness.
Before you despair or turn into the Squidward you see below, read on. I promise there is light at the end of the tunnel! And that light is way closer and easier to get to than you think.
Pictured above: Me whenever I think too hard about the inequities of the world without any plan of action to address them.
How can we mitigate this active source of unfairness on our exams? How do we ensure that a portion of test takers are not gaining an unfair advantage by cheating? The answer is both deceptively simple and necessarily complex: you improve your test’s security.
What’s frustrating about test security (and national security, and IT security, and any other kind of security you can think of) is the never-say-die nature of it all. We implement security measures and dollars-to-donuts, bad actors figure out how to circumvent them. So that inspires some of us to think, “Okay, well whatever then. Why fight a losing battle?”
Well, because we haven’t really fought it yet.
In fact, we’ve mostly been facilitating the fraud with static questions and poor security. It’s time to put up a proper fight.
In Part 2 of this four-part essay, I discuss actual, tangible ways to stop cheating and improve the fairness of your exams. Exceptional (and effective) test security IS possible, and I promise that getting it isn't as hard or scary as you might think.
Each of us in the testing industry—from software developers to item writers to assessment coordinators, teachers to certification managers, to test takers of all kinds and beyond—has a responsibility to make our position matter. We have a direct impact on the fairness of the world.
Credentials, awards, jobs, salaries, and all kinds of other opportunities are bestowed upon individuals based on the tests we create and administer. If we have knowledge that this process is somehow unfair—how can we fix it?
How can we make it matter?
Well, we don’t have all the answers, but we’ve got a pretty good idea of how to get started.
For more than 18 years, Caveon Test Security has driven the discussion and practice of exam security in the testing industry. Today, as the recognized leader in the field, we have expanded our offerings to encompass innovative solutions and technologies that provide comprehensive protection: Solutions designed to detect, deter, and even prevent test fraud.