Securing Tests and Exams; Need for 360 Degree Security

By Darrin Theriault, Director of Academic Testing & Prior Learning Assessment Coordinator at Kennesaw State University

Darrin Theriault, Director of Academic Testing & Prior Learning Assessment Coordinator at Kennesaw State University

As a young Tank Platoon Leader in the US Army, I quickly learned the importance of 360-degree security.  The Soldiers and Non-Commissioned Officers in my platoon also taught me that achieving and maintaining 360-degree security is a collective, team effort.  The 360-degree security principle is just as important as it relates to exam security in higher education and it also requires a collective, team effort.  In the wake of the recent college admissions scandal and as I participated in this year’s Georgia Collegiate Testing Association’s annual conference, one consistent theme rings louder and becomes more clear:  to effectively apply 360-degree security, we must maximize the use of technology if we are going to protect the integrity of tests, examinations, and assessments.  The cheating surrounding SAT and ACT testing as part of the college admissions scandal raised a lot of questions among faculty and administrators at my institution:

•    If students could cheat on SAT and ACT, how do we know they are not cheating on our exams?
•    What can we do to reduce the likelihood of cheating on our exams?
•    How do we know students aren’t cheating on exams at the testing centers?
•    How do we know students aren’t cheating on exams delivered through virtual proctoring services?
•    What steps/processes does the testing center staff put in place to prevent cheating?

These are all important and relevant questions.  One of the positive outcomes of the cheating scandal is the conversations that are starting to happen beyond the four walls of academic institutions’ testing centers.  The answers to these questions are not easy, and often involve multiple layers of planning across a number of departments that should happen before exams are even delivered.  As a testing professional, the team I lead is responsible for safeguarding exams at the point of the test.  Essentially, testing professionals are the last line of defense to ensure students are not bending the rules or cheating on exams.  It is critical that testing professionals and the testing centers they operate maximize the use of technology on these front lines.

Testing centers have a variety of technology platforms available to assist.  Arguably the most effective deterrent to inappropriate testing behaviors is closely monitoring every test taker.  This can be done through a combination of activities.  Physically walking through the testing space sends a message to students that they are being monitored.  Beyond the physical presence inside the testing space, proctors can monitor students through video camera feeds displayed on monitors.  If possible, mounting a video monitor with the camera feed displayed at the entrance of the testing lab sends a message to students that they are being monitored directly through physical walk-throughs AND through video monitoring.  Posting the monitor at the entrance is advantageous because it is the last thing students see before entering the testing lab before taking their tests.

"One of the positive outcomes of the cheating scandal is the conversations that are starting to happen beyond the four walls of academic institutions’ testing centers"

One of my top priorities, when I began my post-Army career as a testing center director, was to convert all of the existing paper-based exams into computer-based exams.  Many learning management systems (LMS) have features that allow quick conversion of paper-based exams in Microsoft Word format directly into computer-based exams.  Computer-based exams offer several advantages over paper-based exams to include:  randomization of questions, randomization of responses within each question, large test banks of up to hundreds of questions that randomly populate from exam to exam, and web browser lock-down capability.

To achieve their role in exam 360-degree security, instructors have a host of technology tools available within most LMSs to assist with improved test design that will prevent cheating.  Professors teaching online courses should consider many of the best practices listed above.  For example, if a given exam consists of 25 questions, building a large test bank almost ensures that no two student’s exams will be the same.  Additionally, if the multiple-choice response options are randomized for each question, the correct answer could be a, b, c, or d across exams making it difficult for students to pass along correct answers to their classmates.  Most LMSs include a “lockdown” feature that disables access to any other web pages and external programs while students complete exams.  At least one of these lockdown browsers platforms includes a monitoring feature that uses webcam technology to record students’ testing sessions.  Early versions of the monitor feature were not instructor-friendly because instructors had to review entire testing sessions to check for inappropriate behavior.  However, recent advancements in the monitoring function mark potential inappropriate behavior with a flagging system.  Now when instructors review exams, instead of reviewing hours of testing footage, they can go directly to any flags to check for inappropriate behavior.

As long as there are exams, some students (and even their parents) will try to circumvent the system and cheat on important exams – cheating themselves, their classmates, and their instructors.  In order to stay a step ahead of the few “bad apples,” instructors, testing professionals, and information technology support staff must continue to work together, leveraging technology tools.  By using technology effectively, creatively, and persistently, we can sustain the 360-degree security required to mitigate cheating on the exams, tests, and assessments created to check students’ learning.  Protecting the integrity of exams is a critical element required to ensure that students are achieving learning objectives and progressing toward degree completion on a fair and level playing field.

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