Just Say No to Brain Dumps

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We’ve all heard it before: Brain dumps are bad. If you use them, you’re devaluing your certification and the practice of certification testing in general, which is bad for you, the industry, your potential employers—it’s just bad! But somehow, no one ever seems to let on exactly how illegal brain dump usage is. Adjectives like bad, wrong—even the word “cheating”—sound better than fraud, criminal act, copyright infringement or the really ugly phrases like potential litigation. Yet that’s the truth of the matter.

“Most certifications now, prior to getting a certification or when you register to take the test, will have you sign an agreement, and in that agreement it states that you will keep the test items private, undisclosed,” said Jerry Christensen, co-founder and vice president of test security firm Caveon. “There’s a lot of people we protect at Caveon. We’re protecting the test sponsor because they’re putting in typically hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a test out, and it takes six to 18 months to get it out. It’s an asset, and once it’s compromised, it’s not a measuring tool anymore. We also protect the other people who come through legitimately and obtain a certification. It’s unfair to them if others are fraudulently getting that certification. Also, the employers who hire these folks want to ensure when they hire someone they know what they’re getting.”

So you can add protection of the innocent to the list of catchphrases in the war against brain-dump usage. But underneath the buzzwords, the fact remains that if IT certification is to have any value at all, certification tests are important. They are tools that employers can use to screen potential candidates, and help separate you from someone with less skill who wants that plum job. “Certification is valuable to getting jobs and therefore motivates this kind of behavior,” said David Foster, president of Caveon. “There are other justifications (from cheaters). They may say, ‘Oh well, it’s a stupid test anyway so why not do this? The list of justifications is extremely large, and almost anybody can find a reason to do it. The key is it’s very short-term. Underneath, it’s ‘I’m going to help myself. Everybody else however, shouldn’t use brain dumps because I want the certification to be valuable.’ I’m wondering how many people see the harm they’re doing to a program.”

“Here’s another underside,” Christensen added. “With the advent of the Internet, broad, worldwide publication of this kind of information is just so easy. Any half-wit could stumble across this and publish it on the Internet. You have this illicit, illegitimate business going. For $1,000, I’ll give you the answers to all these tests, or for $3,000 I’ll go in and take the test for you, proxy testing. Those who participate are not unlike if you participate in any other black market business that undermines the legitimate side of business.”

“Brain dumps are like a progression,” said Mark Poole, director of test security, Pearson VUE. “It’s like the slippery slope to hell. If you think brain dumps are a deadly sin, if all I’m going to do is memorize the questions anyway, wouldn’t it be easier not to have to take the test at all? That’s the language that a lot of these sites have started to adopt. We can sell you all this stuff, but why don’t you just pay us and we’ll take the test for you?”

Basically, a brain dump is an outlet for criminals. Hacking, stealing, cheating, selling items without permission—it’s not unlike bootlegging music or movies, except the money you’re taking out of someone’s mouth may not be a film or rock star, it could be your own. Copyright issues are just as valid here as in any other industry. Test questions are the intellectual property of the test sponsor, and if they’re used incorrectly, that’s a copyright violation. “It’s tough to prosecute, but from the candidate or test-taker point of view, they’re still using material that someone else has obtained illegally. That’s not proper or ethical. It’s paradoxical in that it destroys the very thing that you’re after,” Foster said.

So cheaters beware. If you’re conscience isn’t a strong enough deterrent to stay your hand from the dark side, an organization like Caveon or even a testing center might be. Caveon does a daily Web patrol to hunt out brain dumps, which must advertise to make themselves known, and reports them to their clients—unsuspecting victims who may not be aware they’ve been jacked. Often a cease-and-desist order is issued, and the pay structure of the site is disrupted, effectively putting that brain dump out of business. “We cripple them by cutting off their financial source, like a PayPal or something, which in their contract, you can’t deal in illicit material or non-legitimate types of business,” Christensen said. “They’ll cut them off straight away, and the threat of litigation is also a pretty solid deterrent.”

Unfortunately many brain-dump sites pop back up a few days later under a new Web site hosting service, with a different URL or registration name—even pseudonyms have been used to disguise the culprit. But test analysis has gotten sophisticated and can out cheaters fairly easily. “Data forensics as a program management tool can be used to detect certain anomalies in testing that might be suggestive of widespread use of cheating materials,” Poole said. “For instance, if you see in your program the pass rates suddenly begin to increase very rapidly, that usually means that the items on the exam are easily available to the general population taking the test. There have been studies done which have actually tracked the performance of items, and most of these studies have shown that in a very short time frame, in fact within a few hundred delivery instances of a test, the test suddenly starts to get easier. That’s indicative of items being shared. They could be shared as brain dumps or cheat sheets, but they could just be people sharing the information with one another. A test taker who’s passed the test is now giving tips to his colleagues.”

“The solution to the whole problem of brain dumps is moving more toward performance-based testing,” Poole said. “The reason brain dumps are so popular and they’re so widespread is because its very easy, if you rely exclusively on multiple-choice testing and very simple item types, to memorize those sorts of things and not have to learn anything. More traditional forms of electronic testing tend to be more of a test of knowledge rather than of ability to perform specific job-related tasks. That’s why you see a lot of programs in IT testing moving more toward performance-based testing. All of the major programs have some element of this built into their program now. It’s a lot harder to create a brain dump around a simulation, for instance, or an interactive item type where you have to interact rather than select a preprogrammed response.”

Brain dumps who offer cheat sheets and proxy testing are an unfortunate blight on the certification landscape, but increased use of performance-based testing, more frequent item randomization for traditional test formats and savvy test publishers with innovative tests with large pools of frequently rotated items, not to mention widespread concern over the value depletion of this very able indicator of IT talent, are hard at work to counteract the villains. Study, use legitimate test preparation materials and take advantage of online communities to master objectives rather than take the easy way out. When you do something wrong, somebody always knows. You’ll be embarrassed, significantly lighter in the pocket, and your face will be posted in the back rooms of test centers everywhere. If you simply study, you just might learn something.

Kellye Whitney is associate editor for Certification Magazine. She can be reached at kellyew@certmag.com.


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