Securing Exams Against Fraud

3 tips to prevent cheating on computer-based testing programs.

By Jill Burroughs, Director of Test Security, Pearson VUE

Maintaining security standards is crucial to the sustained success of any testing program. A major misstep in this area could lead to integrity and fairness being questioned, and ultimately damage program and company reputation. Unfortunately, most computer-based testing (CBT) programs will face attempts to compromise the testing process. Today, these efforts are becoming increasingly sophisticated. As the emphasis on continuous professional education and examinations grows across industries worldwide, robust test security measures are becoming ever more essential.

Cheaters and Brain Dumpers

According to a survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, out of 12,000 high school students, 74 percent admitted to cheating on an exam at some point during the previous year. The problem has long-term repercussions, as those who successfully cheat at high school level are likely to continue this behavior when pursuing professional certification.

Recently, there have been a number of sensational cases involving impersonators or “hired guns.” However, the most frequent and corrosive types of cheating involve the misappropriation of exam questions and the use of cheating aids.A common form of cheating involves the harvesting of test questions, otherwise known as “brain dumping.” Brain dumpers take exams specifically to obtain questions for distribution to other test-takers. Some unauthorized test preparation programs advertise that they use “real exam questions” and encourage their students to memorize and share questions they saw on the test as a way of “giving back”to the group. In other cases, organizations hire“professional test-takers” whose sole responsibility is to take tests and secretly copy or record entire test forms.

Other cheaters may not be involved in brain dumping but employ other unfair means to obtain a positive test score. Their methods can range from smuggling notes into the testing room to the use of mobile phones, earpieces, and other cheating equipment. Most importantly, cheaters look for and attempt to exploit underlying vulnerabilities in the way tests are designed or administered.

In mid-2012, the tough competition for a place in China’s top educational institutions led to the arrest of 1,500 people on suspicion of selling transmitters and hard-to-detect earpieces in an attempt to cheat. With 6.85 million university spots on offer and more than 9 million students taking the paper-and-pencil exams, attempts to cheat were rife. Police uncovered more than 100 gangs suspected of selling cheating equipment and seized 60,000 devices, such as earpieces.

While highly damaging for test owners, proxy testing can prove hugely profitable for successful impersonators. For example, in 2011, an investigation into a New York cheating ring saw a number of students arrested for paying Sam Eshaghoff, 19, to sit for their pencil- and-paper-delivered SAT exam—a standardized test for college admissions in the United States. Eshaghoff is alleged to have taken the test on behalf of registered candidates for almost three years and received between $1,500 and $2,500 per exam. He did so by forging ID and taking the exam at different locations so that administrators would not recognize him.

Whatever the method or motivation, those who cheat unfairly reduce the credibility of the overall process. Potentially, they deny an honest test-taker the seat, position, promotion, or other reward for which they have worked so hard. More worrisome, a cheater may go on to assume a professional position of trust such as a doctor or teacher without actually being qualified, thus jeopardising public health, safety, or wellbeing.

How Do Cheaters Cheat?  

There are many ways cheaters try to compromise tests. Here is a selection of methods and tactics used:

  • Copying: Whether a test-taker has roving eyes during a test or is part of a so-called “study group,” it’s still copying.
  • Buying papers online: Papers on just about any topic are available, and most can be downloaded instantly.
  • Photography: Test-takers have been caught taking photos of answers entered by fellow test-takers.
  • Using the bathroom or needing a break: Once out of the testing room, a test-taker can call or text friends for answers.
  • MP3 players: Test-takers can put anything on their device, including revision notes.
  • Earpieces: Devices such as Bluetooth technology have been used by cheaters who receive information during their test from outside of the center.
  • Mobile phones: Possibly the easiest way to store data.
  • Notes: Test-takers have been caught removing wrappers from sweets, reading their pre-written notes, and using the information to answer questions.

Tips to Prevent Cheating
Although cheating represents a serious risk, there are steps you can take to minimize its impact on the integrity of your program.

  1. Secure your intellectual property. Test integrity begins with robust test design and properly secured exam content. Testing companies able to create and maintain large-scale item banks, assist test owners in transitioning to CBT, and implement methods that minimize item exposure and deter exam theft can ensure the protection of intellectual property. This includes adaptive and on-the-fly delivery models, item randomization and masking, and innovative item types that reduce the effectiveness of memorization strategies. A testing system should maximize the value of such investments by providing robust, layered security protections. This includes secure test publishing, end-to-end encryption of exams and test results, real-time authorization of exam delivery, item-at-a-time presentation, and a comprehensive electronic audit trail of exam delivery events.
  2. Utilize the most secure, proctored delivery network. CBT centers should comprise advanced security technology, biometric test-taker identification, a dedicated proctor station with full view of each test-taker, and a high proctor-to-test-taker ratio. Also essential is use of digital video surveillance to monitor and record any misconduct during the testing process. Security incidents during testing should be reported electronically and automatically linked to the test-taker record for immediate investigation by a designated security team.
  3. Monitor your program for infringement. The ability to successfully leverage business intelligence and monitor compliance can make the difference between knowing about cheating and actually being able to do something about it before a test-taker obtains a credential. Your testing system should provide the optional ability to automatically flag predetermined behaviors (such as rapid test completion) on the test day and then prevent the final score or credential from being issued. Infringement monitoring services—which are designed to help you detect, analyse, and respond to unauthorized distribution of your exam content by brain-dumping organizations—will be another big plus.

Despite the range of tools available to those who may attempt to defraud your program, there are several simple yet impactful steps you can take. It’s always worth taking time to research who is trying to compromise your program. Better still, find out how and why. It’s essential that your tests are delivered through a secure test center network and that they are protected with advanced prevention, detection, and enforcement tools. Even in the age of the tablet device, it’s crucial to appreciate the importance of both human proctors and technology to prevent fraud. It’s important to move with the technological times but remember the tried-and-tested methods still being applied.

Jill Burroughs is director of Test Security at computer-based testing company Pearson VUE. For more information, visit

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