Pirates, cheats and IT certs

Some ne'er-do-wells steal test questions and answers, and cheaters buy that information, share answers in chat rooms, pay other people to take tests for them and bring a range of technologies and techniques into test centers to gain an edge.

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Getting caught: A great way to kill a career

Wary of the damage that rampant cheating can have on an IT certification, like what some say happened in the 1990s (see sidebar, below), companies aren't just getting aggressive about catching cheats, they're clamping down by handing down more severe sanctions.

"We ban for life anyone who is caught cheating. They are not allowed to take any Microsoft exam ever again," says Grieve. And Microsoft, at its discretion, may also strip the candidate of any previously earned Microsoft IT certifications, she adds.

Devaluing a credential

As large numbers of people earned the Certified NetWare Engineer certification in the early 1990s, recalls Dave Meissner, chief operating officer at Kryterion, "there was concern about the quality of the professionals being certified. People could pass the CNE exam successfully purely by studying books," he says, which gave rise to the term "paper Certified NetWare Engineer." What's more, "there was a strong belief -- and perception is what matters -- that the test content was readily available, and the value of that CNE credential was diminished."

CompTIA is taking a harder line on cheating as well, "casting a wider net" by using data forensics in its investigations, says Kainrath. Today if you get caught cheating you won't get the certification and must wait a period of time, typically a year, before you can take the exam again. But CompTIA is considering changing that to a lifetime ban. "This year we'll roll out a harder policy," he says.

Poyiadgi says that he's seen cheaters lose their jobs in situations where employers sponsored the candidates. And if the person was selling test questions and answers, he or she may be prosecuted by law enforcement as well, he adds.

Kainrath marvels at the amount of time he says some people spend trying to cheat their way through IT certification exams. A certification like A+ serves only to validate the user's skills, he says, and if a cheater is hired or promoted based on false pretenses it hurts the cheater's career prospects as much as it does CompTIA's reputation. Ultimately, he says, "It's not doing them any good by faking it."

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch, or email him at [email protected].

How people cheat

  • Bring high-tech spy cameras and Bluetooth earpieces into test centers to show questions to and receive answers from an off-site expert
  • Purchase stolen test content from overseas "brain dump" sites and then memorize the questions and/or answers
  • Share questions and answers in online chat rooms
  • Hire an expert as a proxy to take the test for them
  • Bring low-tech cheat sheets into the test center on index cards, write answers on the palm of the hand, etc.
  • Surreptitiously use a smartphone to gain unfair advantage through use of texting, images, online searches, etc., during an exam.

Potential consequences for those who get caught

  • Immediate disqualification from the current test
  • Ban on taking the test again for a period of time -- or for life
  • Loss of all previous certifications from the IT certification program provider

How test centers stop cheaters

  • Use live and/or online proctors trained to spot suspicious activity
  • Ban all electronic devices from the test room
  • Perform forensic analysis of the test results to detect "anomalous" behavior that might indicate cheating
  • Use "Trojan horse" questions or other innovative test designs that tip off test program managers that the candidate studied stolen test content
  • Identity validation with photo ID, digital signatures, biometrics; photograph the subject and include it on the test report to thwart proxy test takers
  • Randomize order of multiple-choice test questions and answers
  • Use multiple exam versions containing completely different questions
  • Use scenario-based questions that require that the candidate perform an action by interacting with a simulation, rather than answering a multiple choice question
  • Use adaptive testing that varies each successive question based on the answer given to the previous one and stops the test as soon as proficiency is determined

-- Robert L. Mitchell

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