Cheating and Technology

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While most won’t, some people will always try to cheat. Warnings, threats and punishment don’t have long-lasting effects, or even short-term ramifications. The reason for cheating usually has to do with money or something that leads to money—and that’s a pretty strong incentive.

Take the very visible cheating that occurs in professional sports, particularly baseball, where some athletes take performance-enhancing drugs. These drugs allow some to perform well enough to break records, reach all-star levels and attract very high salaries. In a USA Today opinion expressed on Dec. 7, 2004, the author cited increased cheating on tests in schools and the growing acceptability of cheating on taxes, and went into detail on the drug problem in major league sports, providing the recent examples of Marion Jones from track and field, and Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds of major league baseball. Each of these athletes was being investigated for steroid use. Giambi even admitted it. The article described some effects of the cheating: “Clean players are put at an unfair disadvantage, tempting them to cheat to keep up.” It continued, “Fans, young and old, are cheated out of seeing a game honestly played…Records become lies.” The article called for a solution to find better ways to catch cheaters. The current methods are not working.

Of course, cheating occurs in testing, as well. This includes tests to get into college (ACT or SAT), graduate school (GRE) or medical, business or law school (MCAT, GMAT or LSAT). Certification (or licensure) tests like those you take for IT certification, or those other professionals take to become registered nurses, certified public accountants, automobile mechanics, cosmetologists, hazardous material handlers, commercial truck drivers, airport security screeners and so on are no exception. Tests are given by HR departments for hiring or promotion, such as specific personality or skills tests. Tests are given to place kids in special programs in elementary school or to make sure a defendant is competent to stand trial. Tests are used for grading in schools (midterm or final exams) or for advancement (state assessments). Tests are even used to evaluate compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act. All of these tests have important consequences and lead to cheating by some, but it’s not always the people taking the tests. Teachers, for example, have been found to change answer sheets so their students get higher scores, leading to better teacher and school evaluations. High-stakes consequences lead to cheating. It’s that simple—and the problem is getting worse. Like steroid use in major league baseball, where it is estimated that 44 percent of the current players use such drugs, the data strongly indicate that cheating on tests also is on the rise.

Getting ready for a recent flight, I decided to buy a paperback copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling. Both my wife and my daughter had read the entire series. I was looking for a good book, and they recommended it enthusiastically. It is, of course, very well written and describes a school, called Hogwarts, where magic is taught to young future wizards and witches. At this school, like at all normal schools, there are final exams at the end of the courses. Each student is required to answer the questions using special parchment that has been bewitched with an anti-cheating spell. Banned from testing in the fifth book in the series were Auto-Answer Quills, Remembralls, Detachable Cribbing Cuffs and Self-Correcting Ink.

Do we have enchanted paper in high-stakes testing? Or even an enchanted keyboard? Not yet, but the next best thing is possible. Using sophisticated statistics, it is possible to tell if a person is cheating on a test—while the test is going on. After a few questions, the cheating is detected and verified, and the test can be stopped. Not providing a score is an immediate punishment for the cheater who loses his or her testing fee, perhaps jeopardizes the chance to test again and is unable to steal many questions (if stealing was the intention).

Biometrics will help as well. Digital photographs taken of each test can be compared with each other and an original to make sure the right person is taking the test. These can be printed with score reports and certificates. Fingerprints work the same way, and are used more than ever before. Cameras and microphones installed at workstations can record what each test-taker is doing during the test and can be used to verify inappropriate behavior.

The value of our test scores and their ultimate use in determining who gets certified, who gets into college and who gets good grades must be protected. It’s time to create and use the magic of technology to help.

David Foster, Ph.D., is president of Caveon (www.caveon.com) and is a member of the International Test Commission, as well as several measurement industry boards. He can be reached at dfoster@certmag.com.

 

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