Classroom Technology

Online-Test Security, Social Media, and Cheating: A Recent History

By Sean Cavanagh — April 02, 2015 3 min read
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The recent news that states and online-test developers have been monitoring students’ social media to try to stamp out cheating drew a shrug from industry (which sees standard operating security measures at work), and fulmination from the anti-testing caucus (Corporations Spying on Your Children! might have served as the collective headline).

My colleague Michele Molnar recently sorted through the facts and noise in a story describing the practices testing companies use to protect online test content—and the outrage those practices have drawn in some quarters.

To give readers a sense of how security vs. privacy issues have evolved during the relatively brief lifetime of online testing, I’ve put together a list of selected highlights from EdWeek’s archives. Call it Throwback Thursday: The Privacy/Cheating/Security/Spying Edition.

What you’ll find is that many of the issues that have erupted over the past few weeks aren’t new. What’s changed is the technology—for giving online exams, for cheating on them, and for trying to quash the cheating.

I’ll start with the most recent stories, then skip back through the years.

Adaptive Tech., Secure Browsers Aim to Curb Student Cheating” (2014)

This story by my colleague Michelle Davis looked at how adaptive testing has made the sharing of online test information more difficult (or rather more pointless). It also examined other security measures, such as how test developers now favor browsers that can lock down digital devices to prevent students from searching the Web for test answers.

States were already monitoring social networking sites for the sharing of test information at least a year ago. One of those states was California, where hundreds of tests were flagged as questionable after students shared test questions via social media.

Interesting statistics from that story;

“A 2011 survey by the San Francisco-based Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that studies the effects of technology and media on young people, found that 83 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds had cellphones and 35 percent of those cellphone owners said they had used their phones to cheat in school.”

Digital Tools Raise Questions About What Is and Is Not Cheating” (2013)

Explores the nuances around accusations of academic dishonesty in the online era.

"[A] greater emphasis on collaboration in today’s classes has given rise to confusion about what exactly constitutes cheating...If students are allowed to collaborate in the classroom, does that mean they’re allowed to work on homework together over Facebook after school? It’s not always clear, and students don’t always know who to ask.”

Technology for Online Standardized Testing vs. Technology for Teaching” (2013)

Teacher/blogger Patrick Ledesma recalls seeing “one picture of a gym in a high school with over 350 laptops on tables setup as testing stations—complete with manila folders taped to the sides of the screen to prevent cheating. And some schools close their libraries so students can test on the computers.

Examining the Florida Virtual School” (2012)

Story profiling the Sunshine State’s big online provider. It describes the sometimes-creative measures used to try to ensure academic integrity in the world of distance education.

“FLVS teachers provide monthly progress reports to parents and do phone assessments of students to help prevent cheating,” EdWeek reported. “The school also uses plagiarism-detection software and has an academic-integrity department reviewing such issues. FLVS also does random or targeted proctored tests, requiring students to take exams in face-to-face settings,”

Common Assessments a Test for Schools’ Technology” (2011)

This story looked at the hurdles posed by moving to online testing, including challenges in keeping test info secure.

“One approach to security for certain kinds of test items....would be to produce and publicly share a huge number of [them]. Releasing hundreds of essays in English/language arts, for instance, would make it impossible to prepare for so many essays, making cheating very difficult.”

With changes in technology, it’s possible we’ll be a very different place when it comes to test security, and students’ ability to circumvent it, a few years from now.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.