Pirates, cheats, and IT certs

Cheating is on the rise, but IT certification programs are fighting back

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Test centers also have ways to tell if candidates have been memorizing stolen test questions and answers or sharing knowledge in chat rooms. "We leverage several different publication strategies and question types designed specifically to address cheating," Grieve says.

While Grieve declined to provide details, Addicott says some of the more basic anomalies include people who perform at "superhuman speeds" on the exam or who perform well on items that have been on the test a long time while scoring poorly on newer items -- an indicator that the individual may have memorized stolen test content.

Some IT certification exams also catch people who have memorized stolen test data by including "Trojan Horse" questions that deliberately include the wrong answer in the official answer keys. These questions don't count toward the candidate's overall score, but if the test taker answers a predetermined number of such questions with the incorrect answers listed in the answer key it's assumed that they used stolen information and the test is automatically invalidated, says Addicott.

Certification programs may also use different test designs in an attempt to thwart cheaters who have memorized test questions and answers. These include scrambling the order of questions on any given exam, randomizing the order of answers to multiple-choice questions, having a pool of questions from which to choose from for each test item and giving different candidates in the same test center entirely different versions of the test.

CompTIA and other certification organizations have also started to supplement or replace some of the standard multiple-choice test questions with adaptive and performance-based methodologies that are harder to compromise. With adaptive testing each successive question the user sees depends on whether or not he answered the previous one correctly. As soon as the test determines that the taker knows -- or doesn't know -- the content, the test ends. "It's a more refined manner of judging, but it also provides security," says Greenwood.

CompTIA is adding progressively more performance-based testing, which uses scenario-based questions that ask the user to perform specific actions in a simulated environment. Such questions are harder to memorize. "At that point it becomes easier just to study," says Kainrath.

And that, in a nutshell, is a key part of CompTIA's strategy. "We can't stop cheating, but we can make sure it takes a lot of time versus just studying."

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."

This article, Pirates, cheats and IT certs, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch, or email him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

Read more about education/training in Computerworld's Education/Training Topic Center.

This story, "Pirates, cheats, and IT certs" was originally published by Computerworld.

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