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Can Unproctored Online Assessments Be Trusted?

Posted by Dennis Maynes

updated over a week ago

What Are Proctored Online Assessments?

Online proctored exams are remote tests that are supervised, ideally via a neutral third party, and often over a webcam. Proctored exams work to ensure the security and integrity of the test being administered. Unlike on-site proctoring or record and review proctoring, remote online proctoring takes place live over the internet in a separate location from the test taker. As more and more online courses are developed and offered, the potential for academic dishonesty is increasing, while proctored online assessments are becoming more common.

Can Unproctored Online Assessments Be Trusted?

Yes—with the right technology in place, high-stakes exams administered today can be trusted even without the added component of proctoring. Proctoring has its own security strengths and limitations, and it should always be used in conjunction with other security measures that prevent, detect, and deter cheating and test theft.

Proctoring Is One Slice of the Pie

The Importance of Secure Online Exams

I have been very interested lately in the security of online exams and the ability online exams have to detect cheating. Online exams are becoming more prevalent, and many assessment programs are transitioning to online testing. This is warranted, and even welcomed, as long as security concerns can be adequately addressed. For example, Boston Globe released an investigative report concerning Army Correspondence Courses. Senator Edward Kennedy M. Kennedy, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, reacted strongly to the report: "I was shocked to read of one website that provides answer keys and boasts that '[w]ith cheap prices and fast service, you can be wearing that E-5 [sergeant] rank before you know it.'"

The problem is that many online assessments are essentially unproctored internet tests that don't have robust enough security measures in place to prevent, detect, and deter cheating and test theft. Unless online tests can be delivered securely, they should not be used for high-stakes exams. (By definition, an exam has high stakes if passing or failing the assessment has significant consequences for the test taker. Usually, significant consequences entails opportunities such as getting a job, getting licensed in a profession, getting admitted into a school, getting a diploma, getting a raise or promotion, etc.)

Beyond Proctoring: Other Test Security Measures to Use in Online Exams

Other than proctoring, what security measures should online exams implement to protect their assessments?

There has been interesting progress in the area of secure administrations of unproctored internet tests. I will mention just a few items that I can recall readily (but you can head to this article for more in-depth ideas to prevent cheating in online exams):

1. Build in "Old-Fashioned" Simple Security

In answering this question, I can't help but be reminded of my college days. I remember taking unproctored tests as a student at my university (back then, we called them "take-home" tests). Our take-home tests had implicit security built right into them:

    1. They were really hard. You couldn't just find the answer to the questions in the university library or online.
    2. You might find someone to take the test for you or help you out, but eventually, you would take a few in-class tests (where you couldn't use your friend).
    3. The tests were written in your own handwriting, which was easily compared with prior copies of your handwritten assignments.
    4. Later, as an instructor at the university, we added another twist to take-home tests: Every student got the same problems, but with different data and different answer options.

2. Use Security-Enhanced Test and Item Designs

There are types of item and test designs that prevent cheating and theft from the start. Examples of secure test designs include tests that use SmartItem™ technology and items that use the Discrete Option Multiple Choice™ (DOMC) format.

3. Take Advantage of Biometrics and IP Tracking Capabilities

It is best practice to utilize biometrics to authenticate a test taker's identity. Another security measure many universities have added to their online assessments is the tracking of IP addresses. This enables you to determine whether more than one test is being submitted from the same computer.

4. Utilize Randomization

Algorithms that produce item clones or variants can reduce the ability of test takers to share test content or profit from another's answers. Another security measure includes the randomization of answer choices, the random selection of test questions from an item bank, and the prevention of test items from being copied or printed. You can learn more about randomization in this article.

5. Take Advantage of the Proctoring Tools in Your Test Delivery Software

Some test delivery engines (like this one) offer proctor tools that notify you when suspicious events take place during an exam. For example, you can receive warnings for examinee behavior such as:

    • When "Alt," "Ctrl," and "Cmd" keys are pressed. These are keys often associated with screenshots.
    • When an examinee's browser is resized. This includes opening browser consoles and inspectors.
    • When a test taker's browser is not maximized.
    • When the exam is running in the background. This is when a user has changed tabs or applications.
    • When there has been a context menu attempt. This detects and prevents right-clicking.
    • When an examinee's mouse has moved outside the browser window.

This security feature gives room for an unplanned investigation into suspected testing malfeasances. The test delivery software gives the test administrator the option of pausing, suspending, or resuming the exam.

6. Detect Cheating Using Web Patrol® and Data Forensics℠

There are test security strategies available that are far more effective at detecting cheating than proctoring. Two of the most effective solutions include monitoring the web for stolen and disclosed test content and routinely running data forensics analyses that detect cheating by looking for unusual patterns in your testing data.

7. Administer Oral Exams

I remember the day that I took my oral exams. There was no faking. There was no cheating. I was in a room, face-to-face, with three professors. Each of them had taught me in at least one course. Of course, it is not realistic to do this for every single individual being certified in a profession or being admitted into the university. But, it demonstrates the importance of having several observations which together confirm that the candidate does indeed possess the requisite competence. You can learn more about oral exams in this article.

8. Implement Deterrence Communication Strategies

Deterrence can be compared to a communication plan that discourages test takers from cheating. This can be as simple as letting examinees know that there are consequences to cheating and test theft, or as robust as requiring the examinee to sign an oath that they will not cheat. Deterrence messages should:


Two things are clear: (1) online testing is here to stay, and (2) ubiquitous security solutions are needed if the results of online assessments can be trusted and relied upon. You can learn more about the benefits and limitations of proctoring in this curated list of articles.


Dennis Maynes

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About Caveon

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.

Topics from this blog: K-12 Education Proctoring Detection Measures Prevention Measures Certification Higher Education Online Exams