Faking the Grade: Day 3 sidebars and graphics

State may switch to online tests

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One possible path to cutting cheating on exams is digital: switching to computerized testing.

The state has conducted several experiments with online tests, and officials have said some state tests – although probably not the TAKS – could be administered solely online within two years.

Without a physical answer sheet, copying answers from a neighbor would be substantially harder. Officials could easily reorder questions or answer choices for each student – or even slightly alter the important numbers in math problems.

That’s how the national exam for certified public accountants is administered, according to Joel Allegretti, spokesman for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Questions are selected for each test taker from a pool of thousands of possible items – meaning no one sees the same questions as his neighbor.

On a computerized TAKS, results would be reported instantly to state servers, giving adults no opportunity to change student answers after testing. And without statewide shipments of test booklets, ill-intentioned teachers wouldn’t have access to questions before test day.

“A lot of these security issues become nonproblems with computer testing,” said Jim Impara, senior director of test security at Caveon, the Utah firm Texas hired to examine its test scores.

Of course, computerized testing would also open up new avenues of cheating. Most schools don’t have enough computers to test an entire grade at once, which could mean testing some students on different days. That could allow answer swapping if questions aren’t tweaked from day to day.

To beat cheats, mix up seats, tests

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David Harpp, a chemistry professor at Montreal’s McGill University, was alarmed when he first discovered that around 5 percent of his students were cheating on his final exams. He and a colleague named Jim Hogan devised a method for detecting the dishonest, but his primary goal wasn’t detection – it was prevention.

So he began creating multiple versions of his exams and started a mandatory seating system. The result: Answer copying almost completely vanished. And when McGill instituted his policies universitywide in 1990, detectable cheating dropped to almost imperceptible levels.

Researchers have found there is a magic solution to answer copying by students. It’s the cocktail of two specific reforms: defined seating patterns and multiple test versions.

The McGill reforms would stop all but the most determined cheater. A student would have to find a way to communicate with a friend whom he was not seated next to – since all of his neighbors would have a different version of the test.

And if he can get in touch with that distant friend – perhaps via text messaging – he would have to hope the friend had the same test version he did. That would only be a one in four chance.

“It makes cheating more difficult in a dignified way,” Dr. Harpp said.


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Here are some changes the Texas Education Agency could make to discourage cheating on TAKS exams:

MULTIPLE FORMS: Print slightly different versions of the TAKS for different students, keeping all the same questions and answers but arranging them in slightly different orders.

Pro: Would almost completely eliminate casual cheating, where one student sneaks glances at the bubble pattern on a neighbor’s answer sheet. Would make it much harder for a teacher or another adult to doctor answer sheets after an exam.

Con: Added complication could increase the time and cost of grading exams. Could raise the risk of grading errors. Would require a statistical procedure to make sure all versions of the test are equally difficult.

PHYSICAL STANDARDS: Require schools to maintain adequate space between students on test day; require students to be seated in some set order with a chart showing where each student sits.

Pro: Reducing a student’s ability to sit next to a best friend would make cooperative cheating more difficult. Keeping students farther apart would make casual cheating more difficult. Seating charts would aid investigations into suspected cheating.

Con: TEA officials say some schools don’t have facilities big enough to avoid seating students close together.

PROCTORS: Prohibit teachers from proctoring the exams of their own students.

Pro: Would reduce incidence of teachers helping their own students improperly on test day or doctoring their answer sheets after the fact.

Con: Would do little to prevent the much more common phenomenon of students cheating off of one another. Could be logistically difficult in smaller schools.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research