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Pirates, cheats and IT certs

Robert L. Mitchell | June 20, 2014
Cheating is on the rise, but IT certification programs are fighting back.

It didn't take long for the test center proctor to realize something was amiss. One group of people clearly stood out from the rest of the candidates taking a popular IT certification exam. They sat rigidly in their chairs, hardly moving at all, and they proceeded through the questions at a pace of six items per minute, well above the norm of one to two questions per minute. All scored well above the minimum needed to pass the test.

After the testing concluded, the test center called in Caveon LLC, a consultancy that specializes in test security, including data forensics, to review the situation. "At first blush it looks like by using a Bluetooth speaker and a video camera they were collaborating with a subject-matter expert offsite," says Caveon's vice president Steve Addicott.

Such equipment is readily available online at sites like the aptly named spycheatstuff.com. Aspiring cheaters can buy wireless speakers that fit deep inside the ear canal, where they can't easily be seen, as well as tiny cameras that are simple to hide. The suspected cheaters in this case were most likely sitting still to give their hidden cameras a clear video image of the screen, Addicott says. The review of that particular case is still ongoing.

Cheating is trending
IT certifications have become a primary route to both salary premiums and career advancement, according to a recent Foote Partners report. So it's no surprise that, as the popularity of certifications has grown, so has cheating. "Jobs and careers are at stake here, so people will attempt all sorts of things," says Matthew Poyiadgi, vice president of Pearson Education Inc.'s Pearson VUE business unit, which manages 5,100 test centers worldwide and counts the IT certification program manager CompTIA among its clients.

And while CompTIA estimates that the level of cheating on IT certification exams is less than 5%, industry insiders say the problem is growing and that keeping up with the cheats requires constant vigilance.

How people cheat

  • Bring high-tech spy cameras and Bluetooth earpieces into test centers to show questions to and receive answers from an off-site expert
  • Purchase stolen test content from overseas "brain dump" sites and then memorize the questions and/or answers
  • Share questions and answers in online chat rooms
  • Hire an expert as a proxy to take the test for them
  • Bring low-tech cheat sheets into the test center on index cards, write answers on the palm of the hand, etc.
  • Surreptitiously use a smartphone to gain unfair advantage through use of texting, images, online searches, etc., during an exam.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

So far, cheating doesn't appear to have devalued most IT certifications in the eyes of hiring managers. For the 309 IT certifications that Foote Partners tracks, the average pay premium across 2,600 surveyed companies has gone up for the last four consecutive quarters, says CEO David Foote.

 

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