Cisco combats exam cheating with digital ID policy

* Exam takers must give digital signature and photo before entering test centers

In a bid to combat cheating and to "protect the value of certifications" Cisco now requires all exam takers to provide digital photos and digital signatures during the admission process at Pearson VUE, Cisco's primary test centers.

According to Cisco: "This new layer of identity authentication will help to ensure candidate identity and result in increased assurance that individuals are presenting accurate certification records in the marketplace."

Cisco says the move is a precautionary one against cheating in the Cisco exam world, which Cisco Jeanne Dunn, senior director for Learning@Cisco says is an "isolated problem." However, CertGuard, which works with vendors to combat the exam cheating industry, believes cheating in the Cisco world is more widespread than Cisco is publicly admitting. "[Cisco] really need to open up their favorite Internet browser and Google 'CCIE' or 'CCNA'. These braindump companies [which publish actual questions and answers from Cisco tests] are easily searchable and their search engine advertising is often much better than most legitimate practice test providers," says CertGuard CEO and Founder Robert Williams. "I have over 600 braindump Web sites listed in my database and ~98% of them have questions and answers from nearly every Cisco exam, even some exams that were released within the past 6 months. In fact, CCNA braindumps are more prominent on the Internet than MCSE braindumps."

Another problem in the Cisco exam industry is the so-called "hired-gunmen" who take exams for other people. More sinister is the claim, according to Williams, by some gunmen to actually owning testing centers.

"Hired Gunmen rely on the availability of the testing centers in their area and the ability to use those test centers whenever necessary. With these new methods in place that should make it much more difficult for the gunmen to follow through with their illicit acts, but only because they will be flagged for entering the facility more frequently than any normal exam candidate," Williams says.

He adds: "As for braindumps, I feel Cisco’s new methods will reduce the number of individuals that take exams strictly to collect exam questions, but that’s the only way I see Cisco’s decision affecting the braindump industry as of now. The people that use braindumps do restrict themselves to rote memorization of the questions and answers. This practice can be done in the privacy of one's home and is virtually undetectable unless the cheater talks about how s/he studied. This method cannot be detected in the testing center and neither a photo nor a signature will allude to the fact that they have cheated.

"Many cheaters will also memorize a question or three from the exam and report them to any of the numerous forums on the Internet. Rarely are those questions and answers verbatim, and any braindump company that is making money is most assuredly not using those. What I’m worried about is the practice of creating the braindumps and this is what I've focused on."

Dunn says the digital signature and photograph policy is just a part of what Cisco is doing to combat cheating. To stay one step ahead, Cisco said it is constantly changing its exam content and adding questions to test for soft skills, saying that over time certifications are going to be tied to specific job roles. Cisco will also add more simulation to tests arguing that to answer simulation questions correctly candidates must be familiar with real-life networking issues - a skill that hired gunmen may not possess.

Williams thinks otherwise: "I’m sure they know the Cisco equipment inside and out, and I’m sure they have the skills to out perform just about anyone in their region."

He adds: "I’m sure that any future measures Cisco is planning will work towards reducing braindumps, I hope they are working with VUE to reduce owner/employee corruption in the test centers. Cisco made a great move by switching to a single exam delivery partner; now VUE needs to follow up with that by closely monitoring each and every one of their test centers (including employees and owners) to help determine where the exams are being compromised."

Cisco says the new authentication technology will be implemented in phases around the world over the next year.

For more discussions about cheating in the Cisco exam world, read the Brad Reese on Cisco blog "CertGuard declaration of war on the Cisco certification cheating industry has been achieving success" at Network World's Cisco Subnet community for Cisco customers.

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