High-stakes cheating brings hi-tech scrutiny

In an age when district funding and even teacher pay raises are tied directly to student performance on state exams, it can be tempting for educators to cheat the system, such as by giving students the answers to test questions in advance. Indeed, instances of fraud in the administration of high-stakes exams are on the rise since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became law in 2001.

Now, in response to this trend, a growing number of states are contracting with outside firms to guard against such testing fraud.

When North Carolina recently hired security company Caveon Inc. of Utah to guard against cheating on standardized tests, it became at least the third state to outsource security services for its high-stakes testing to Caveon. South Carolina and Delaware have signed similar agreements with the company.

The security services that Caveon provides to guard against cheating on high-stakes tests are exhaustive. Some say such services are positive developments that will help ensure the fairness of high-stakes testing in the NCLB era. Others, however, believe that no amount of testing security can change a nationwide reliance on testing that is itself critically flawed.

Caveon reportedly is the first company to provide security services specifically for high-stakes testing in K-12 education.

Don Sorensen, a spokesman for Caveon, said schools usually have some kind of security system in place for high-stakes testing. “The problem you have nowadays is that the methods of test fraud have become much more intertwined with technology, and the stakes are higher because of NCLB,” Sorensen said. “Whenever there are high stakes, there’s a reason to cheat.”

Although agreeing with his colleague, John Fremer, founder and senior director of testing security for Caveon, pointed out that educators are “really a pretty honorable crowd–you don’t go into teaching because you want to make the most amount of money you can.”

Still, a primary benefit of the company’s services for state and school leaders is that “they’ll be able to clear things they might have had to worry about,” Fremer said. Areas of testing deployment that could be a cause for concern can be investigated, and administrators’ worries can be eased.

For example, “What if you go from the 35th to the 66th percentile?” Fremer asked rhetorically. “Was that because you had great educational collaboration, or is there something to worry about?”

Caveon provides security audits that examine high-stakes testing procedures to determine their strengths and weaknesses. The company then helps design best practices for schools to improve security.

Terry Siskind, state assessment director for the South Carolina State Department of Education, who was involved in the Caveon audit of that state’s high-stakes assessment system for high school students, said, “I think it is unique for a company to provide this kind of security assessment.”

She added: “We just wanted to be proactive [in our test security]. The test that we audited … is used to determine accountability for the state. But it is also our high school exit exam. We want to make certain it is fair.”

Fremer said each contract begins with the company’s auditing service, which questions those involved in all aspects of test administration. He said Caveon officials interview “IT security people, test developers, file maintenance [workers], investigation report reviewers, state follow-up people,” and other administrative officials.

Questions address a wide range of security policies and procedures–from the type of locks used to secure the exams, to whether encryption is used when transmitting files electronically.

After the initial audit phase, Caveon moves on to the data forensics element of its security service to search for clues that cheating might have taken place. Caveon uses statistical tools designed to detect aberrant test-taking patterns. These tools notify administrators of irregularities in individual tests that might indicate isolated incidents of cheating.

“We look for things that are not logical,” Fremer said. “For example, students will get more easy items on the test correct than hard items. But what if the reverse is true? That’s trouble.”

He continued, “What if it’s a computer-based test, and the amount of time it took to work on questions is not reasonable?” If an examinee moves quickly through a series of difficult questions, this could indicate that the student had the answers beforehand. Another element of the company’s data forensics is web patrol. Caveon will look on the internet for evidence that protected test items have been illegally published online. Fremer said the longer the window of time for taking a test is open, the more likely materials from that test will be posted.

When all of these elements are complete, the company will offer a series of recommendations for schools to follow that are rated according to priority.

Not everyone believes the way to make high-stakes testing more fair is to make it more secure. Angela Valenzuela, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas and the editor of a collection of essays critical of NCLB, called “Leaving Children Behind,” said systems for determining cheating on high-stakes tests miss the point: High-stakes testing under NCLB will always be corrupt.

“The assessment gets corrupted because in a numerical display of the scores, one could never parcel out the impact of all it took to get that score,” Valenzuela said. These factors could include “teaching to the test, teaching primarily those children who are likely to increase the school average up”–a practice Valenzuela likened to a kind of “academic triage”–or “otherwise manipulating the testing pool.”

She added that “however … normalized teaching to the test is in some contexts, this [practice] should appropriately be construed as institutionally approved cheating.”

Regardless of how relevant Valenzuela’s concerns might be, it appears the market for testing security will become more prominent unless major legislative changes affect the way testing is weighted.

“Whether Caveon will flourish, I can’t say,” Siskind said. “But I think the issue will be more important nationwide than it has been in the past.”

See these related links:

Caveon Inc.

South Carolina Board of Education

“Leaving Children Behind,” Angela Valenzuela, ed.
http://www.sunypress.edu/ details.asp?id=61006

eSchool News Staff

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