Scandalous: Options for High-Stakes Cheating Abound
Whenever performance is measured and outcomes matter, individuals will be tempted to cheat. From steroid use in MLB to blood-doping on the Tour de France to teacher erasures on End-of-Course tests to academic dishonesty at the US military academies and at Harvard, cheating is everywhere. When the news recently broke about another cheating ring emerging from China and South Korea on the October SAT, it hardly qualified as a scandal. It’s an old story.
In the last several decades, we’ve become increasingly inured to tales of academic dishonesty, both domestic and abroad. We are naturally outraged when an Emory student takes the SAT for six high school students on Long Island, or ten students from a prestigious DC high school share answers with each other during an official, though loosely proctored, SAT administration. These relatively isolated incidents of cheating are contrasted with cheating on a much broader scale taking place overseas. Last year, three days before an official SAT administration, the Educational Testing Service decided to cancel the SAT nationwide under suspicions that testing information had been compromised. Thousands of students were left to scramble to retake the test for their college applications. With the current modus operandi, we can only assume that such scenarios will continue to plague the higher-education world.
Advances in technology have facilitated cheating on a massive scale. The hyper-competitive landscape of college admissions has set the stage for students to angle for any potential advantage. And the negative consequences of cheating, particularly overseas, are far too light to discourage dishonest behaviors. There’s an aphorism in the world of fraud that can be slightly modified to fit our current context. Ten percent of people will never cheat. Ten percent of people will always cheat. The remaining 80% of people will cheat given the right context and circumstances. When the act of cheating is nearly effortless, the payoff tremendous and the penalties inadequate, we should not be surprised when so many students are attempting to game the system.
Cheating could be lumped into 3 distinct varieties: the student-poser, the time-zone-traveler, and the MI-6 junkie.
The most straightforward way to cheat on a standardized test, say the SAT, is to pay someone to take the test as a replacement. All that is needed is a smart look-alike and an ID that will satisfy the scrutiny of a proctor. The most spectacular example of this is Samuel Eshaghoff, who took the SAT for six Long Island students, charging $1,500 to $2,500 per test sitting. The student-poser is such a common occurrence in China that he has received his own nickname, sharpshooter. Such individuals create falsified identification cards, travel to less-secure testing sites (often in other provinces), and sit the tests for their clients.
The Time-Zone Traveler
The next step up is the “time-zone traveler.” A student on the west coast could enlist the services of an east coast friend to text answers to his conspirator, who would be able to memorize the sequence of answer choices before heading into the test himself. This option is significantly riskier, since the student would need to use his phone during the test, something expressly prohibited during the testing period. Many students can text underneath a jacket, however, and have benefited from years of practice covertly texting their friends during class. Also, this approach would only benefit the west coast student for the first half of the test, as the time zone difference of 3 hours is not enough for the east coast student to take the entire test and send his answers before the west coast student head to the testing location.
Along with abusing the relativity of time, other cheaters benefit from the information lag between the United States and Asia. The most recent scandals for SAT test-takers from China and South Korea have taken advantage of the College Board’s republishing of previously administered SAT tests abroad. All cheating companies would need is to access those previous SAT tests and make them available to students, who would then memorize the lists of math questions and reading passages should they appear on an upcoming test.
Finally, for students for whom money is not a consideration, there is an abundance of technology available to help them cheat. A speaker inserted into the ear and concealed microphone or video camera will suffice to transmit test information out of the test center, as well as correct answers back to the student. Of course, this option holds the most risk – we are not yet at the time when video camera glasses exactly mirror traditional glasses, and a student is likely to stand out if she mumbles audibly into her jacket, no matter how well concealed a mic is.
Cheating is not limited to the SAT. A BBC documentary revealed how prolific cheating has become in the UK on the TOEIC test, administered by ETS, the same company that provides the TOEFL. A student went into a test center with a hidden video camera and recorded how, for a fee, students stand by their desk as fluent English speakers take the test for them, in full view of the proctors. She went back a week later to take the second portion of the test, a multiple choice section, and found that the proctor himself read aloud the answers to all of the questions. As a result, the Home Office announced that it would no longer accept TOEFL/TOEIC scores for visa purposes. Some colleges continue to accept TOEFL scores for international students, but others accept only IELTS or Pearsons scores and no longer accept TOEFL tests for Tier 4 student visas.
As important as standardized tests are in the United States for aspiring undergraduate and graduate students, they are even more crucial in countries like China, where near-perfect scores are a non-negotiable for upward mobility. In October of this year, 2,000 Chinese students were caught taking a national licensing test for pharmacy when the proctors detected illegal frequencies transmitted in the testing room. Testers had earpieces that picked up transmissions sent from a company that sent fake candidates into the testing room first to memorize the questions. Candidates paid $330 for that service.
So what are the next steps for the College Board and other companies to prevent cheating?
The College Board needs metal detectors and wands to identify cheating equipment in the testing room. It needs non-proctor employees to sit the test and observe students while the proctors stress out about the operations. Video cameras in each testing room with additional personnel observing would also be helpful in providing objective evidence of cheating. All this should be done with absolute transparency to the public. The College Board could learn a lesson from China’s attempt last year at top-down imposing interventions without alerting parents and students. It wouldn’t look good for 2,000 people to start a riot outside of the testing center, chanting, “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”
Furthermore, testing companies could do more to hold students responsible for their actions. Colleges receive no information from the College Board about students who are caught cheating on the SAT. Scores may be canceled, but that happens to honest and dishonest students alike. Dishonest students need more than a slap on the wrist and canceled test scores. Test companies need to send the message that cheating hurts honest test-takers as well as dishonest ones, who will be more likely to find the easy, and ethically problematic, way out in the future.
The College Board needs multiple tests for each time zone of a test day and completely new tests for international students. The greatest risk seems to come from test-takers taking photos of material or transmitting it by other means out of the test center. Providing different problems for each administration would nip a potential cheating opportunity in the bud.
The sooner we can get to digital and computer adaptive tests, the better for remedying cheating. With a near-infinite supply of test questions providing an unlimited number of test iterations, students would be hard-pressed to communicate the test contents in a helpful way or steal glances off of their peer’s test.
As long as the College Board relies on multiple presentations of the same paper-based test, unsecure test locations that permit all sorts of hidden recording/transmitting devices, and overworked proctors who cannot adequately deal with cheating as it arises, it should not expect dishonest students and companies to behave differently. As technology improves and the benefit of high test scores becomes more alluring, it has no choice but to adapt.