Empowering Schools to Use Data Forensics

(The following is an excerpt from an invited talk that was presented to the US Department of Education, September 1, 2011.)

It was sometime after we started Caveon, that I realized the primary goal of conducting security analyses was the strengthening of exam security, not catching cheaters. This is a message that resonates very well with the testing program managers with whom I have interacted. They agree that the primary goal of security actions should be to obtain trustworthy test results, which occurs when the exams are administered securely and with integrity. Disciplining cheaters is important and supports this goal, but it is only a means to an end.

Exam security can be strengthened in two ways, and both should be used: (1) Prevention of cheating, and (2) Detection and discipline of cheaters which will result in deterrence.

Prevention of cheating is gained by implementing effective security processes through policies and procedures. An important element of this effort is the periodic review of security processes and how well they have been implemented.

Detection and discipline of cheaters occurs through (1) performing regular forensic analysis, (2) qualifying the anomalies, and (3) imposing sanctions and invalidating scores.

Deterrence results when security actions and consequences for cheating are publicized.

It’s important to realize that security is a process, not a state. As an example, I have an alarm system at home. Installation of an alarm system does not mean that my home is secure. Only by arming and testing the alarm system can I be ensured that it is functioning properly. Speaking of alarm systems, I am delighted when no one breaks into my home. Just because there were no break-ins, does not lessen the value of the alarm system. I have had clients who felt that web patrolling and data forensics monitoring had no value because we did not detect security breaches. The non-existence of security breaches does not lessen the value of the security processes that have been implemented.

Except for some fraud laws, there are very few laws regulating cheating. It is difficult to prove and there is no physical evidence of material loss or harm. I often hear the phrase “Prove that I cheated.” In fact, I recently saw a headline in the papers expressing the same idea. It’s important to realize that state departments of education do not need absolute proof of cheating. They have an obligation to ensure that tests are administered securely and with integrity. In order to meet this obligation, states require a “preponderance of evidence” in order to act, not absolute proof. However, the departments of education must treat students and teachers fairly, and they must communicate policies clearly.

Because security is a process, it is important to have a ready-prepared security breach response plan, before the breach occurs. It’s not a matter of if the plan will be activated; it’s only a matter of when the plan will be activated. The planning process helps the department of education to have a focused and coordinated response for conducting investigations, imposing discipline and, of utmost importance, communicating with the public and the media.

Without such a plan, the department of education must create a response to the security breach in a potentially haphazard manner. The press is very good at uncovering haphazard and hastily prepared communications.

In summary, state departments of education are empowered to use data forensics wisely and effectively when they have implemented security policies, processes, and procedures which enable them to administer tests securely and with integrity. Regular data forensics monitoring allows states to measure and manage security risks that are inherent with all forms of high-stakes testing.

Dennis Maynes

Chief Scientist, Caveon Test Security

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