Lockdown! Securing Your Certification
You are scanning a system user’s bulletin board, when you happen upon a string of messages exchanging inside information about an upcoming exam for system administrators. How would you react?
- Chat it up to learn more about the exam.
- Ignore it. You’ve studied for the upcoming exam, so you don’t need to know the actual test questions.
- Send a message asking the participants to stop leaking exam content. You don’t want to see your certification devalued.
- Contact the certification program management and inform them of the activity.
If answered “A” you may not understand the consequences of exchanging or using protected test information, so here’s a quick tip: It’s cheating, which degrades you, the exam and the value of the certification—and ultimately, it could jeopardize your future.
If you answered “B” you probably understand the situation, but by failing to report what you’ve seen, you’re like a witness to a crime who refuses to testify: You’re part of the problem. As a “B-type,” you may not understand the long-term effects of cheating on the investments you have made, not only in training and testing, but in your chosen career. Would you want to work with someone who cheated their way into the next office or cubicle?
If you answered “C” or “D,” you have strong ethics and values, and you appreciate cheating’s effects on you and your chosen profession.
A significant percentage of IT certification tests are affected by some form of cheating or piracy. The data is clear: The sheer number of documented cheating incidents, statistical analyses of test data, Internet monitoring and evaluation of exam preparation materials demonstrate that cheating and piracy in IT certification testing are very real. Most likely, you have come across some form of it too. IT brain-dump Web sites, chat rooms and discussion forums are often littered with protected test material that is shared—and often sold.
But are cheating and piracy more prevalent in IT certification testing than other types of certification testing? “To say there are a disproportionate number of brain-dump sites might do a disservice to the IT industry,” said Dennis Maynes, chief scientist for Caveon Test Security. “However, in comparison to other testing programs, there are a large number of Web sites that claim to have the actual test questions, and many of them actually do.”
Still in Demand
Research indicates that certifications continue to be viable career credentials sought by IT professionals and employers. IT certification holders as a group command higher salaries and have a greater number of job opportunities than those without certification. “Certifications generate more value in the high-tech marketplace, so there is a greater opportunity or marketplace for them,” said Peter Manijak, former director of education for the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). This is especially true in developing countries where aggressive job markets create fierce competition for employment. In those areas, and under similar conditions, the temptation to shortcut on the testing process is great.
There are three important areas to explore in the realm of cheating in IT certification exams. First, recent research findings that examine the breadth and the depth of cheating need to be reviewed. Then, there is the “double whammy”: When others cheat, you lose, in many ways. Lastly, it is imperative to know what you can do to preserve the integrity of your credential and the health of your profession.
Fixing the Game
Delve into your childhood memories of team sports. Was it unusual for one of the teams to intentionally stack the talent? Start or finish with more players? Set up a higher basket or smaller goal? Bend or break rules in a way that made it seem impossible for that team to lose?
If your childhood was anything like that, you were generally on the other team. But you are wiser for having suffered such humiliation, right? Here’s one life lesson typically taken from those experiences: Opportunity has as much to do with a level playing field as it does hard work, intelligence and determination.
In testing, as in life, the aspirations of the hard-working majority can be foiled by a few dishonest test-takers, because cheating can provide a tremendous competitive advantage. Those who take a test with inside knowledge of what the test will and won’t cover enjoy the rough equivalent of a five-on-three game of basketball—the team with more players scores easily, often and always at your expense.
Today, like “free” downloads of the latest hit songs (studies show that less than 3 percent of downloaded music is paid for), offers of online test content attract individuals who would not otherwise engage in cheating. You may have said these, or similar, phrases to yourself:
- “If it’s on the Internet, it’s got to be legitimate, right?”
- “The training program is so expensive.”
- “Everyone else has this information. Why not me?”
Accessing test content on the Internet is deserving of censure: Test information should never be shared. Can a test whose content is generally known beforehand ever be considered a test? Confidentiality is essential to testing, providing a truer measure of ability and competence. Without it, test content encourages narrow preparation and provides no reliable indication of what a person knows or can perform. The question now confronting testing programs is what can be done in the Internet Age to maintain the confidentiality of tests?
Leveling the Playing Field
Research has shown that suspected cheating is associated with large differences in pass rates. Cheating results in higher tests scores, and those higher test scores allow someone without your knowledge, skill, ability or ethics to earn a certification—and then to go on and capture job opportunities that otherwise might have been available to you. Cheating compromises everything that you, as an honest individual and examinee, have and hope to achieve through certification testing.
However, in recent years, several powerful tools have become available to certification programs to combat cheating and piracy:
- Statistical analyses of test scores and other data for patterns of suspected cheating and piracy.
- Biometric verification of test-taker identity.
- Internet and media monitoring.
- Performance test designs.
- Video and audio monitoring of test-takers.
- Stricter penalties for those who are caught cheating.
While they’ve been available for some time, the statistical analyses of exam responses have reached a level of sophistication that allows IT certification programs to identify patterns of cheating and piracy. Using these methods, certification programs have confirmed that cheating and piracy are not only real problems, but problems that can be measured and, therefore, managed. From these analyses, program managers also have discovered that the types of “liberties” taken by cheating candidates range from the use of stolen test content and organized cheating rings to unauthorized test retakes.
In addition, more certification programs are taking steps to enhance physical test security by placing cameras and microphones in testing centers, requiring multiple forms of identification and conducting eligibility checks to control test retakes and banned test-takers. An increasing number of test centers now use biometric verification technologies such as thumbprint, hand or facial recognition to verify a test-taker’s identity.
To combat the distribution of stolen test content, certification programs also have begun to monitor the Internet for the sharing or selling of such material. Once identified, progra