Anyone sitting a high-stakes exam—one with life-changing consequences—is under such immense pressure to succeed that the temptation to cheat can be great. As recent high-profile cases have highlighted, the perceived risk of being caught is often outweighed by the perceived reward—a cherished credential resulting in a major step towards career success and prosperity. This year has already seen yet another high-profile example. Authorities suspect that over 200 people with medical degrees across India, including doctors, were involved in a massive test-rigging scam inspired by the Hindi film Munna Bhai MBBS. The Delhi Police exposed a racket involving the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test. They made two arrests in May and have been searching for the impersonators charging up to `15 lakh to fraudulently sit exams for candidates. The pair generally chose exam centres that did not have CCTV surveillance. The Bihar School Examination Board hit the headlines when it expelled 360 examinees for using unfair means in the Intermediate examination held in a February crackdown. The 17-year-old student who ranked first in the state exams was sent to jail after she was made to re-sit her exams and failed. There is a battle going on between would-be fraudsters and exam-owners—and technology could hold the key to victory.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “cheating” as acting dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage. In the testing world, this means declaring knowledge, skills or abilities that the test-taker does not really have. Regardless of whether an examination is being administered as part of the admissions selection process for higher education or to receive a professional qualification or for any other reason, examinations are intended as meritocratic exercises. If cheating occurs, it calls into question whether the test results are being awarded based upon merit. Cheating is not fair to others who receive their test results through honest means. If cheating occurs, the score report interpretation is not valid for those who have cheated. A test result obtained through cheating is not reliable because the result may not be repeated if the test-taker takes the exam through honest means. Fairness, validity and reliability are the tenets upon which the examination process should be based, and cheating calls into question each of these.
There are a number of ways that cheating can occur, both before and during an exam. Leakage of test questions and copying of test answers are the two major ways. The security features of computer-based testing (CBT) can deter these types of cheating. Leakage of test questions means candidates gain access to the questions prior to taking the test. On social media, one can find examples of test content being shared with others. Perhaps the reasons for sharing test content are altruistic, but nevertheless this type of activity interferes with the purpose and intent of the examination process. In pencil-and-paper testing, exam papers go missing at times—the greatest threat to exam integrity. In CBT, there are no hard copies of the papers being sent to test centres, so this threat is eliminated. Test content is transmitted through electronic means and it is held in an encrypted state until test questions are administered to test-takers and then re-encrypted after administration.
One of the greatest advantages of CBT is it can provide greater access and flexibility because an exam does not have to be administered on a single day. All test-takers not taking the exam at the same time can, of course, present additional challenges in preventing the leakage of test questions. But there are features in CBT that can combat this risk. CBT allows for different ways of administering test questions so not all test-takers see the same set of questions. Different versions of exam papers are constructed so that they are equivalent to each other in terms of the content they assess and how difficult they are. Administering different, but equivalent, versions of exam papers means that any one test-taker sees and can divulge a small proportion of the test items being administered. Because different test questions are being administered to different test-takers, any individual will not know which questions will be administered to him or her. Therefore, there is minimal benefit to having exposure to test questions prior to the examination.
Copying of answers from another test-taker is deterred by physical and technology features. Unlike pencil-and-paper examinations which typically take place in large lecture halls, exams offered through CBT vendors occur in test centres that have been constructed with test security in mind, so there are physical deterrents to cheating in place. These include each test-taker sitting in a kiosk with dividers between the test-takers. Other advantages of CBT are the technological cheating deterrents built into the software. Test questions can be sequenced randomly so that even if test-takers receive the same test questions, they don’t see them in the same order. Only a single test question appears on the computer screen at a time. There are strict technology-controlled time limits. The testing software includes a clock that counts down for the candidate on screen. Once the time has expired, the software shuts off, so they cannot take longer than the allotted time to complete the exam.
While some of these deterrents may be possible in a pencil-and-paper exam, CBT makes them easier and more efficient to implement. CBT allows for better control over the exposure of test questions and better control over test security in general. There are many security options available to exam sponsors implementing CBT. Its flexibility is one of its greatest benefits. Exam security is a key consideration for exam sponsors. CBT vendors can discuss exam design options with exam sponsors to make sure that a CBT is implemented in a way that achieves optimal test security and deters cheating, whilst making certain the exam results are fair, valid and reliable. Rather than detecting cheating after it has taken place, necessitating punitive actions, features of CBT limit the potential of test-takers to cheat as well as limit their advantage if they do cheat.
The author is vice-president, Global Testing Services, Pearson VUE