Cheating on Language Tests

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Prof. Glenn Fulcher




This feature accompanies the article Cheating gives lie to our test dependence, published in the Guardian Weekly, 11th October 2011.

Test security is of paramount importance to stop cheating. First of all, what is cheating? I have described it as unplanned variation in test scores as a result of activities unrelated to the acquisition of the skills, knowledge or abilities measured by the test (Fulcher, 2010, pp. 264 - 267). Attempting to gain access to the test questions in advance of the test, or taking restricted materials into the test, would be classified as cheating according to this definition.

In this feature we are going to look at various instances of cheating on tests in order to isolate and define the reasons behind the practice. When we have done this it may be possible to make suggestions for practices that may reduce the desire or ability to cheat.

Historical Observations
The first observation we should make is that cheating is inevitable wherever testing is used. The earliest evidence of cheating comes from the Imperial Examinations in China, which date back to 605 AD. Some of the earliest 'cheat sheets' to be discovered date to the 18th Century. See this story in the Telegraph, which reports on minute booklets that could be sneaked into an exam. The picture on the left shows tiny writing on an under-shirt dating to approximately the same period. Miyazaki (1981) describes the systems that were developed to stop cheating. These included not allowing test takers to bring personal belongings into the test room, separating test takers, not allowing them to leave the room during the test, separating test takers into 'cells', and strict invigilation procedures. Cheating by examiners was also not unknown (bribery), and so examination scripts were anonymized through the use of candidate numbers. All of these security procedures are routinely used today, and the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing has as Standard 5.6 (p. 64): "Reasonable efforts should be made to ensure the integrity of test scores by eliminating opportunities for test takers to attain scores by fraudulent means.' In the next section we'll take a look at a range of 'fraudulent means' that are prevalent in testing today.

Cheating Today
The Gaokao is a national high-stakes test run every June, in which Chinese students take four examinations over a two day period, including English language. The results of the examination dictate which University they may enter. A high score results in a place in a prestigious University, which changes the future not only of the student, but of their entire family. In this clip from China News we see the kind of precautions that are taken to avoid cheating in the modern world. The cheating has gone high tech and becomes more sophisticated each year. In this report, for example, students were found to have received answers to exam questions through sensors hidden in their mouths. This takes place not only in China, but around the world (for example, see this report from Vietnam and this one from Japan), particularly in high-stakes language tests that are also used for immigration purposes. Cheating is also a criminal offence and those caught can face a prison sentence.

Insider Dealing
It is not only some individual test takers who try to cheat. Often staff working within the organization that delivers the test are found to be cheating. This story tells of how bribes were paid to staff in an Australian test centre to change IELTS test scores, which led to charges and a prison sentence followed by more convictions. As a direct result Curtin University closed its Language Centre. Periodically there are also cases of testing agency staff selling copies of test papers on to agents who then sell them to test takers, and give a cut of the profits to the staff.

Listen to this news clip from ABC News on cheating in Australia and its causes, broadcast on 20th May, 2011.

High Stakes Outcomes
As mentioned in this news clip above, ABC went on to broadcast Language Barriers in its Background Briefing series on 22nd May, 2011. In this 50 minute programme ABC thoroughly investigates the situation in relation to immigration issues, and what leads students to cheat. What is remarkable in this programme is the starkness of the "life changing" nature of the test and the test score for the test takers. The programme also makes clear the financial investments required for test preparation and test fees, especially when students are taking the test many times in order to increase their scores. Many of these students suffer from frustration, especially when governments are constantly changing the immigration rules. One of the commentators says that this can lead to depression. In this programme Professor David Ingram (one of the authors of the IELTS) is interviewed. He makes the correct point that IELTS was designed only as a test of academic English for University entry, and its use for the assessment of people in other professions (cooks, hairdressers, medical staff) is inappropriate. This misuse of the test adds to the frustrations reported.

This programme has also generated a lot of comment, which you can access here. The latter part of the programme also investigates what we discuss in the next section - ghost writing.

Ghost Writing
One of the most rapidly growing types of cheating is known as Ghost Writing, and involves a candidate paying a professional test taker to take the test in their place. This is a world-wide phenomenon. It is particularly common in India where frequent police operations attempt to capture the ring-leaders of the test cheat gangs lead to arrests. In this video World News Australia reports on ghost writing activities in Australia. From the informant in this video we see that ghost writing is a highly organized form of cheating, with agencies matching students and test-takers, forging identity documents, and making arrangements for test registration. In short, it is a highly profitable activity. The China Daily reports here that many of these companies operate out of Hong Kong. One, whose website openly markets its services, claims to be a pioneer in ghost writing practices. They write: "Our agency is very experienced in ghost writing and cheating in exams. Exams are crucial in every student's life; you can't be too serious when choosing a capable and reliable ghost writer!" We should remember, however, that this is a very old practice. Miyazaki (1981, pp. 119-120) records that in the Chinese Imperial Examinations: "They brought miniature books to the examinations, or wrote classical texts over an entire undergarment. Still worse was the hiring of substitutes to take the examinations. Some substitutes were so well paid that they easily set themselves up in business."

Given the international nature and scale of these activities the public responses of test providers are sometimes not much more than a fig leaf. We must also remember that the test market is quite fierce, and large-scale security breaches have been used by other companies to break testing monopolies, that that in Australia, with claims that their tests are more secure. Pearson PTE Academic has gone so far as to incorporate Biometric Identification in its test administration.

Questionable Test Preparation Practices
Preparing to take a test is legitimate, but there are some practices that fall into the category of cheating. One of these is studying actual test questions that have been compiled into test preparation materials by publishers, test preparation companies, or "cram schools". This practice has been documented by Tsagari (2009) in Greece: the organization sends its own teachers or pays students to take the test and remember as much content as possible. On leaving the test venue they write down as many test questions as possible. Cohen and Wollack (2996, p. 362) say that "A few examinees can essentially reproduce an entire test by assigning different parts of the test to each co-conspirator." These are compiled into booklets that can be used in classrooms or sold online. The scale of the operation can sometimes become so large that test content is no longer secure within a matter of days. This is the main reason why on-demand computer adaptive testing is no longer viable and TOEFL iBT has reverted to being a linear test with forms. However, this has not stopped the companies trying to copy test content for use in classrooms and developing a wide range of test preparation tactics to help students "ace the test" without necessarily improving their ability. These practices are highly controversial and in at least one instance has caused a major test provider to sue the largest test preparation company in the world, resulting in it having to pay compensation. However, given the size of its profits this may not seem much of a deterrent.

Altering Student Test Responses
While external agencies can threaten the meaning of test scores through their practices, sometimes the problem can be internal. In 2011 the United States public was shocked by reports that teachers and school principals in Atlanta were responsible for changing student responses to standardized tests in order to inflate grades - a practice that had probably been going on for years, and could be replicated across the country (e.g. in Florida and Washington). Watch this news item from CBS News that reports on the scandal and some of the suggested causes. A statement by the Governor of Georgia about the scandal was also released in USA Today. One of the speakers in the news clip suggests that Federal education policy is to blame for teachers teaching in this way. If tests are used to hold schools and individual teachers accountable, with penalties such as school closure or job losses for poor student performance, would this push teachers and principals into cheating? In this article for Education Week, Cizek argues:

    The most common and persistent question I hear, "Why do educators cheat?" recalls the old joke about why people rob banks: It's where the money is. Cheating on tests occurs because there are positive consequences for high scores and negative consequences for low ones. In fact, because bonuses and other incentives are often tied to student achievement, cheating is sometimes quite literally "where the money is."

A Widespread Practice
In this video originally broadcast in the United Kingdom by ITV we see that the practice of cheating, by individuals, institutions, and teachers, is very widespread indeed. The reasons for cheating are put down to the pressures that both students and teachers are under to get ever higher grades. As one of the participants says, we now live in an age of "payment by results". This is particularly the case for schools whose reputation depends upon test results and their place in league tables. The video also addresses the issue of how much help students receive in coursework that is done outside of an examination setting, but contributes to the examination grade. Perhaps the most important point made in the video is that cheating is a matter of academic culture and honesty: a "people thing".

The Bottom Line
Latham (1877, p. 23) had this right back in the 19th Century, when he wrote: "Parents want something to shew for education; a place in an examination list seems to gauge the advantage which they have paid for, and besides it frequently has a positive market value as opening the door to some emolument or profession." A test score, and a certificate, has a commercial value. This is because it provides access to another life, a job, prestige, or future security. In every case of cheating that we've considered in this feature the people cheating wish to achieve something that is only possible with high test scores. The test score is just a hurdle that must be passed to obtain what is really desired. It is the object of desire that is valued most highly - not the test score per se. If you don't believe this is true, watch this video that stresses the importance of getting high scores to obtain future success in China and the temptations it puts in the way of both test takers and parents. Tests are a means of introducing meritocracy to society, and for them to work it is essential that they are valued in their own right as a means to establish and maintain fairness in society. The "people thing" must be about educating the general population to understand the role of tests in society and why cheating undermines the principles of liberal meritocratic states.

References & Further Reading

Amrein-Beardsley, A., Berliner, D.C. & Rideau, S. (2010) Cheating in the first, second, and third degree: Educators' responses to high-stakes testing. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 18(14).

Cizek, G. (1999). Cheating on Tests: How to do it, detect it, and prevent it. London & New York: Routledge.

Cizek, G. (2001). An Overview of Issues Concerning Cheating on Large-Scale Tests. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Council on Measurement in Education.

Cohen, A. S. and Wollack, J. A. (2006). Test administration, security, scoring and reporting. In Brennan, R. L. (Ed.) Educational Measurement. Fourth edition. New York: American Council on Education/Praeger Publisehrs, 355 - 386.

Fulcher, G. (2010). Practical Language Testing. London: Hodder Education.

Fulcher, G. (2011). Cheating gives lie to our test dependence, Guardian Weekly, 11th October 2011. Or you can download a pdf.

Impara, J. C. and Foster, D. (2006). Item and Test Development Strategies to Minimize Test Fraud. In S. M. Downing and T. M. Haladyna (Eds.) Handbook of Test Development. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Latham, H. (1877). On the Action of Examinations Considered as a Means of Selection. Cambridge: Dighton, Bell and Company.

McCabe, D. L., Trevino, L. K. & Butterfield, K. D. (2001). Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research. Ethics and Behaviour 11(3), 219 - 232.

Miyazaki, I. (1981). China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations in Imperial China. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Tsagari, D. (2009). The Complexity of Test Washback. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Other Relevant Features

Questionable Test Preparation Techniques

Glenn Fulcher
October 2011