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How IT pros cheat on certification exams

Carolyn Duffy Marsan | Feb. 17, 2011
Incidents of cheating on IT certifications are on the rise, a trend that experts say is an outward sign of the desperation felt by out-of-work and underemployed IT professionals.

"We actually catch more adults than kids cheating," Burroughs says. "A lot of our information about cheating comes from the other students in the class. If you studied, and you know somebody else bought the test off the Internet, you'll tell us. We get a lot of anonymous calls."

SIIA sees rampant cheating in all sorts of exams, not just IT certifications. In 2010, SIIA won five-figure settlements in lawsuits against three individuals who were selling counterfeit or unauthorized Kaplan study materials for the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam. A fourth individual from a prior investigation ended up paying $400,000 in damages and getting kicked out of medical school after he was found guilty of illegally mass producing Kaplan materials and selling them on eBay.

CompTIA says it is being more aggressive about catching cheaters through the use of biometric systems such as retinal and palm scans to identify test takers, as well as using remote cameras and microphones for proctoring and high-tech scanners for test materials. The organization also plans to create computer-generated exams on the fly.

"We will do a higher degree of identity management of people in a much broader sense. And we're not going to be using the arcane model of 60 people in a classroom," Terry Erdle, executive vice president for skills certifications at CompTIA, says. "We will be using technology to deliver better exams and make it so you can't cheat on them. We'll start introducing these [measures] in 2011...One of the messages we want to send is how fruitless cheating on exams is."

The GIAC Certification Program battles cheaters by using a proprietary system to manage its exams, which have randomized questions and answers.

"We have a proprietary algorithm so that each person has slightly different questions that follow the same test blueprint," explains Jeff Frisk, director of the GIAC Certification Program. "This gives us a larger number of unique instances of exams...You will not be getting the same list of questions in the same order as anyone else."

Also, once test-takers miss enough points that they can no longer pass the test, the GIAC computer system stops administering the test.

This approach allows GIAC to have a "very, very low" number of people caught cheating on exams, Frisk says.

While Frisk hasn't seen an upward tick in cheating incidents during the economic downturn, he thinks test-takers are more desperate because more of them are taking GIAC exams and failing them, over and over again. GIAC recently implemented a 15-day waiting period between exams as a result of this trend.


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