A Detrimental Equation for Cheating

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In today’s cheating culture, you can scarcely pick up a newspaper or magazine without finding an article about the prevalence of cheating. Students have been caught cheating on chemistry tests using the inside of a water bottle to hide periodic table formulas. Instructors have been fired for helping students with answers on standardized tests. A ring of test cheaters in China was exposed because they were selling items to high-profile IT exams. Web sites have been shut down and individuals criminally convicted for selling stolen certification test items.


There are common reasons why individuals cheat: economics, personal advancement and personal gain. Not that any of these incidences are justified, but they are a common rationale for why an individual might compromise test results. In addition, there is also a hacker mentality in the computing community—things should be open and free, tests and testing are irrelevant, and authority should be thwarted at every turn.


However, there are two less obvious explanations why individuals cheat on tests: perceived test value, or how an individual values the test; and competing objectives, or what’s at stake for the individual with poor test performance. The combination of these two factors creates a detrimental equation for extensive cheating.


I recently reviewed copies of letters from IT certificants complaining about the value of tests they had recently completed. They voiced two concerns:



  • Courses designed for certification prep did not live up to expectations; the available courses did not match the latest revision of the certification test.
  • Certification tests were poorly designed; questions were irrelevant or too easy and therefore not worth the time spent studying.


In my previous role as a certification program manager for a Fortune 100 company, concerns such as these were often voiced by IT professionals who had completed certification prep courses only to see little correlation between what they had learned and the questions on the test. As a result, many of these individuals felt there was little value to the tests they needed to take for certification completion.


Tests that are developed with test standards that are poorly mapped to classroom instruction or to real-world job performance are problems waiting to happen. How can we expect students to be successful testing candidates if course materials don’t sufficiently prepare them for the test?


This brings us to the first variable of the equation—perceived value. Certification candidates don’t see value in tests that don’t measure what they are taught or should know in order to perform on the job. If a candidate doesn’t see this relationship, he is likely to treat the test with disregard. Hence, he is more likely to cheat to obtain a successful testing outcome, especially if that outcome will bring favor or advancement.


If perceived value relates to why a test taker would cheat, what about the instructors? Are they cheating on behalf of their students? In a manner of speaking, yes. Value is certainly of concern to the instructor, and an instructor doesn’t see value in tests that don’t measure learning. These instructors may help their students by providing test content.


Additionally, instructors are often measured by how well they train their students. That is, how well does the training prepare candidates for certification exams? Student evaluation sheets speak volumes to an instructor’s perceived competence on the job. I’ve heard many stories about instructors who have successfully completed certification exams only to provide information to their students about the questions and content they will see on the exam. This brings favor to the instructor and higher marks on the evaluation.


This brings us to the second variable in the equation—competing objectives. That is to say, instructors are judged by student evaluations of their performance as instructors (or they are paid on the basis of how many of their students pass a certification test). What better way to gain favor than to let students know what questions will be on a certification test?


By creating tests of little perceived value and by using student evaluations and test results to evaluate instructor performance, we are creating a detrimental formula and perpetuating the likelihood of cheating on certification tests.


It’s time to transform the equation so that the perceived value of testing is positively changed. It’s time to use complementary training and evaluation tools so that we get the right results for what is being measured. It’s time to remove competing objectives so that both candidate and instructor results can be appropriately measured. By changing the equation, perhaps we can increase the value of testing and decrease the amount of cheating. 8


Jamie Mulkey, Ed.D., is a senior director for Caveon Test Security. She can be reached at jamie.mulkey@caveon.com.

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