Cisco tackles certification exam cheating

* Punishing cheaters, shutting down braindump sites among top priorities

Exam cheating and braindump sites are persistent problems in the high-stakes world of IT certifications, and vendors serious about protecting the integrity of their certifications have to fight cheaters on many levels.

Take Cisco. Exam security vendor CertGuard recently discovered 326 braindump sites selling replicas of Cisco certification exams, second only to Microsoft’s 328.

Cisco officials say they are well aware of the problem and are tackling it on many levels, from changes in the tests that minimize cheating, to penalties levied against individual cheaters and legal actions against braindump sites.

“We want to protect the overall value of the program for the candidate who didn’t cheat,” says Erik Ullanderson, who is based on Minnesota and manages Cisco’s certification program. “It’s not about busting the cheaters or finding the cheaters, it’s about protecting the brand for people who do not cheat.”

Of course, sometimes it is about busting the cheaters. Cisco is constantly examining exam results both to tease out general trends and figure out who knew the answers in advance. Certain parts of exams can be passed easily if the test taker sees a copy of the test in advance and memorizes it. Other parts of exams, especially for expert-level certifications, have practical components that might consist of eight hours of configuring and troubleshooting in a lab.

“It’s just not possible to fake being able to configure and troubleshoot,” says Fred Weiller, director of marketing for careers and training at Cisco.So if one person does exceptionally well on a written portion of the test and then fails the practical portion miserably – well, that’s a good sign of cheating. In those cases, Cisco might ask the person to take the test again, and if it’s clear there was cheating penalties ranging up to permanent expulsion from the testing program are on the table.

The braindump sites remain a problem, though. To stay ahead of them, Cisco is constantly evaluating data to find which parts of the tests need to be changed. “A week does not go by that we are not evaluating the data that comes in,” and changing test questions as needed, Ullanderson says.

Cisco officials would not reveal how many cheaters they have caught. But they say a large portion of braindump sites have such out-of-date content that they wouldn’t even help a willing cheater. Still, Robert Williams, CEO of CertGuard, remains impressed by how quickly braindump sites obtain and post tests in violation of Cisco’s – and many other vendors – intellectual property.

“I’ve seen entire exams released [illegally on the Web] within 24 hours of the exam being released to the industry,” he says. Most braindump sites appear to originate from Pakistan and China, according to Williams, who suspects the leaked tests often originate from unscrupulous test proctors in countries with weak rules surrounding intellectual property.

Test takers are not allowed to bring any cell phones, electronic equipment, or even any form of paper into examination rooms, rules intended to prevent copying of exams for distribution to braindumps. Cisco works with test centers to make sure they check identifications and follow all protocols, Ullanderson says.

Then, of course, there is action against the braindump sites themselves. “We have people dedicated to finding those sites,” Ullanderson says. Legal notices are sent to braindump sites that violate Cisco’s intellectual property, and if repeated letters are ignored, Cisco says it launches formal court actions to shut them down.

The process can be relatively quick in North America and Western European countries with strong laws against violation of intellectual property, Weiller says. But in some cases it can take years to shut down a braindump site, he acknowledges.

Williams, who says he is contracting with Microsoft and is negotiating a contract to do work for Cisco, thinks Cisco hasn’t done enough in the past to target these Web sites, but now seems to be taking a harder line against exam shenanigans.

“Their efforts are increasing and they’re getting better at what they’re doing,” he says.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.