Outface the Brow of Bragging Horror

In 2013 Chinese officials banned underwire bras during its massive college entrance exam, the Gaokao (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2357509/Chinese-universities-ban-BRAS-bid-crack-cheating-worlds-toughest-exam.html). The concern was that fake underwire would be used for the illegal transmission of test questions and answers. Using this and less uplifting technologies, cheaters today are winning big, helped by those who steal content, and encouraged by a fairly slow reaction by testing programs.

These ne’er-do-wells, while morally challenged, know the value of technology:

  1. In the 90’s fraudsters began using software tools to steal test questions downloaded to testing centers. They did this by hacking into testing systems and stealing all of the questions and answers.
  2. Then they used emerging Internet technology to advertise and sell the contraband all over the world. By the way, that model is still working well for them. Cheating was easy with such accurate pre-knowledge, and programmable calculators and even pagers supplemented the cheat sheet.
  3. The next 20 years saw a growing rejection of old ways of cheating, replaced by cool gadgets, Bluetooth communication, and social media. Today, the theft of test questions is easy to do and relatively risk free. During a test tiny, hidden and undetectable digital cameras can steal test content a thousand times better than the antique way of memorizing questions. Plus, they can store video of the entire session and that content can be transferred around the world anonymously in seconds without cost.
  4. If that weren’t bad enough, and in cases where the questions and answers are not available on ebay™ or youtube™, sophisticated two-way radio systems can allow a test taker access to expert help during the test. These, like the small cameras, are undetectable by the typical security methods used during testing.
  5. Finally, new printers today can create accurate ID’s that can fool the most capable of test administrators. Do we really know who is taking the test?

You know, of course, that I’ve only scratched the surface here. The list goes on and on, and each month new schemes are introduced. What are we to do?!! Should we surrender and accept defeat? Should we ignore what is happening like the ostrich with his head in the sand? Should we simply cross our fingers and hope to get lucky? How about psychotherapy to help us accept what we can’t change? Personally, I don’t think any of these will work well and would not recommend them. But I do have an alternative to suggest. Why don’t we fight fire with fire? Shakespeare introduced the notion several centuries ago in King John:

Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;

Threaten the threatener and outface the brow

Of bragging horror

Fighting fire with fire means we turn the tables. We use technology to fight and frustrate the cheaters and thieves. I believe it is true that testing organizations as a whole have many more resources to devote to this effort than the individuals and small cheating businesses. We should be able to make an impact. We should be able to “outface” the cheaters and thieves.

So, what are the likely areas where we can win the battle? Personally, I think that all areas of risk are up for grabs, but here are a few obvious ones:

  1. New statistical cheating detection models are the foundation of the emerging science of data forensics, and gives us ways to routinely detect the use of pre-knowledge and many other types of fraud. Fast computers allow millions, even billions of calculations and comparisons to be processed very quickly.
  2. Computerizing our tests introduces us to another fertile area where we can gain a great advantage. New security-immune or security-friendly item and test designs can be used to make life difficult for the cheaters. Item types, like the Discrete Option Multiple Choice (www.trydomc.com), protect test content and de-motivate cheating. At the test level, computerized adaptive tests reduce the overall exposure rate of items while improving how well the test works!
  3. New online proctoring technologies, if used properly, remove some of the security risks associated with traditional test administration practices.
  4. As a final example, automated item generation technologies may provide a inexhaustible and continuous reserve of items, not to simply replace those that are stolen, but make the practice of stealing them an activity without a reward.

It’s time to use fire against fire, or, stated more exactly, use technology against technology. Given how technology has enhanced other parts of our lives, we should be very optimistic that this strategy will work, sooner rather than later, and we can look forward to an era where cheating is only attempted by desperate over-matched chumps.

David Foster

President and CEO, Caveon Test Security

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