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Microsoft cracks down on certification exam cheating

Lifetime bans, sophisticated analysis tools highlight anti-piracy efforts

By Jon Brodkin, Network World
July 09, 2008 12:02 AM ET

Microsoft is tackling certification exam cheating in a big way, with harsher penalties and a data forensics program that can find cheaters through statistical analysis of their exams.

Lifetime bans from Microsoft’s certification program will be handed down to anyone who cheats, commits fraud, or violates the non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that are designed to prevent test questions from being leaked to the public.

Under a soon-to-be released policy revision, “if you commit fraud, break the NDA, break any of our policies, it’s going to result in a lifetime ban from the Microsoft certification program,” says Peggy Crowley, the anti-piracy program manager for the Microsoft Learning department. “We used to have a year-long ban for some things and a lifetime ban for other things, and then we decided that cheating is cheating across the board, and why delineate between the two? So we decided to do a lifetime ban for all forms of cheating.”

Cheating takes many forms. Some cert candidates use old-fashioned crib sheets, while others communicate with fellow test-takers via text messaging, Crowley said. Bringing a phone into a testing center can result in a lifetime ban.

While test-takers face lifetime bans, test centers suspended for fraud are allowed to seek reinstatement after three years at the discretion of Microsoft, and if reinstated must agree to an enhanced security plan.

Crowley discussed the anti-piracy program during a Microsoft Webcast on June 25 titled Redmond CSI: Anti-Piracy and Microsoft Certification.

“There will always be cheating as long as there are tests,” Crowley noted. But Microsoft is using some high-tech methods to catch cheaters. The newest method is a data forensics program that identifies patterns indicative of cheating and piracy. Unusual response times or “aberrant” responses can indicate fraud, Crowley says. “Any time you take a test you leave data behind,” Crowley says.

Microsoft has long used statistical analysis in the course of fraud investigations. The difference now is Microsoft will launch enforcement actions based solely on statistical findings. Microsoft Learning feels comfortable taking this step because of new analyses that show the data forensics are so accurate there is a mere one-in-a-trillion chance of a false positive, Crowley says.

“Starting this summer we’re going to be using this as the sole evidence for enforcement actions,” she says. “With our data forensics we can actually tell when people have been using braindumps [Web sites that illegally sell copies of tests]. We are going to be able to enforce on that going forward.”

Test-takers can be banned and test centers closed based on data analysis, she said.

Microsoft is one of the biggest targets of exam cheaters and “braindump.” One analysis posted on Network World in March found 328 braindump sites selling Microsoft certification exams, more than any other vendor’s tests. Cisco exams were being sold on 326 braindump sites.

In a recent newsletter I wrote about some of the measures Cisco is taking to tackle exam cheating, including continuous altering of tests to thwart cheaters, penalties levied against individual cheaters and legal actions against braindump sites Microsoft offered a significantly more detailed picture of its own fraud-fighting program in the 40-minute Webcast led by Crowley.

The stakes are high in certification testing, from the profit-seeking test centers and braindump sites to the IT pros who shell out time and money to obtain valuable certifications and employers who rely on certifications to hire qualified workers.

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