How to Combat Cheating on IT Exams

By Gina Roos
cheating on IT certification exams

IT certifications increasingly are becoming more important in the industry. Not only can they help IT professionals increase their salary and serve as validation of their knowledge and skill sets, certifications also are considered a valuable hiring tool for recruiters.

According to a 2015 CompTIA report, two-thirds of human resource executives said IT certifications were very valuable, up from 30 percent three years ago, and 94 percent said the importance of IT certifications will grow in the next two years. HR professionals believe holding industry certifications demonstrates the candidate has the knowledge needed for the job. Another CompTIA report finds that 91 percent of employers consider certifications vital to hiring and predicting employee success.

However, industry observers say IT exam fraud is a growing problem, primarily due to a lack of exam security. That has the potential to dilute the value of certifications, even from IT vendors that have highly secure test procedures and policies in place. Cheaters are finding myriad ways to take advantage of a lack of test security, ranging from stolen exam materials sold online to the use of test proxies.

Red Hat, a provider of enterprise open-source software solutions, is taking the lead in combating exam fraud. The company, which offers more than two dozen certifications, has implemented a hands-on approach to IT exam security.

There are two parts to understanding why IT exam fraud is occurring in the industry, said Randy Russell, director of certifications at Red Hat. Organizations need to understand what's happening on a global level and how the exam takers are cheating.

"If there is an exam that has an impact on your career or future trajectory, there are a lot of places in the world where doing whatever is possible to give yourself an advantage is seen as a good thing," said Russell. "It's not just emerging markets. Study after study finds that cheating on exams at the university level is growing, and the sensibility that it's the wrong thing to do seems to be lost.

"People are going to cheat on the test and it's our responsibility as the exam publisher to make it as difficult as possible for people to do that," he said.

Cheating—when an individual tries to gain an unfair advantage to misrepresent his or her performance on an exam—is happening in several ways, said Russell.

Multiple choice testing is particularly vulnerable to cheating, particularly if test takers receive a copy of the questions ahead of the exam. Red Hat avoids this problem by conducting only hands-on practical exams.

Using unauthorized materials presents another unfair advantage. Notes hidden under shirt sleeves or on the brim of a baseball cap, or even a fake candy bar wrapper printed with notes, are some examples Russell noted.

"The key to avoiding this kind of cheating is having somebody monitor the exam," he said. "All Red Hat exams have a proctor—somebody who observes the person while taking the exam."

Exam publishers also have to consider system-level ways that somebody can gain an unfair advantage when taking an exam on a computer, whether it is hands-on or multiple choice. For example, the test taker could provide access to another person, who could do the work for them, or the test taker could use online chat to get help, said Russell. "This requires system-level security."

Another growing problem is proxy test takers, Russell said. "You have to validate their identity during the test taking process. Red Hat requires a government-issued photo ID and has policies in place for name changes."

Russell is a big believer in online learning for the same reasons the training industry is moving toward it—convenience and flexibility. But following this trend on the testing side, at the expense of security, is a mistake, he said.

Red Hat combats exam fraud by conducting exams in a classroom setting, which it has done for years, and offering individual exams that allow the exam taker to schedule the test for a convenient date and time. Its test centers have multiple security cameras and desktop sessions are recorded.

Ultimately, the key is making sure the exam publisher has the right elements in place: a proctor, system-level security and a good identity checking and validation regime, Russell said.

He also urges recruiters or hiring managers to do a bit of due diligence when thinking about using a certification as a hiring tool.

"Ask the candidate how did they test, where did they test, what were the testing options, and ask yourself, would there be a way to abuse this," he said. "Otherwise, over time they will find that certifications are less and less a reliable measure of skills."

When an individual has a certification, recruiters know they are going to get that level of knowledge from that individual, said Bryan Kainrath, CompTIA's vice president of certification development.

Although Kainrath agreed that cheating on exams could damage the certification's value, he doesn't think the industry will walk away from CompTIA certifications, for example, because of what other certification bodies are doing in terms of security protocols.

CompTIA, a vendor-agnostic certification group, invests heavily in its security routines and employs similar security protocols to keep cheating at a minimum, such as adding simulation items on the exam, and recycling out exam questions and simulation items. In addition, CompTIA will de-certify individuals if they are caught cheating.

If the word gets out to individuals that CompTIA reviews exam data and can de-certify them, it will help thwart some of this cheating, Kainrath added.

Gina Roos, a Channel Insider contributor, focuses on technology and the channel.

This article was originally published on 2016-03-10