News your connection to The Boston Globe

Penn State test center battles cheating

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. --Swipe your ID card through the reader, take your ticket to your assigned cubicle, and don't forget to smile for the video cameras.

Pennsylvania State University's new testing center will be a lot like those on other campuses, with 160 private cubicles each equipped with a computer. But the process of qualifying to enter it may be worthy of the CIA.

As well as giving time-crunched professors more flexibility in the type and timing of the exams they give, the center represents one of the most comprehensive efforts nationwide to discourage cheating.

The center will help "level the playing field for all students," said Will Kerr, who manages testing services for the university.

When a student swipes a campus ID, his or her picture will come up at a security station. The student will then scoot through a turnstile and check in with an attendant who will give him or her a printout and computer station assignment.

The printout, to be placed on top of the assigned computer station, will include the student's photo and information on whether he or she is permitted a textbook or scratch paper.

The computers will be locked out of the Internet; the only thing a student can scroll through is the test. Video cameras in the center -- to open next spring -- will feed images from the testing room to the security station in the lobby, and proctors will walk around the room.

Stephen Satris, interim director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, said Penn State's university-wide and high-tech facility is uncommon.

"This is kind of a new thing, a growing thing," he said.

Rutgers professor Donald McCabe, who has studied cheating for decades, said he could not think of another school that went as far as Penn State in monitoring test-takers.

Cheating is not new in higher education. And at Penn State it seems to be more of the "nickel-and-dime, garden variety-type," said John Harwood, the school's senior director for teaching and learning with technology.

But the recent volume of scandals -- especially the schemes recently revealed among some graduate students at Duke and Ohio universities -- may spur other universities to start "rethinking how they go about" curbing cheating, McCabe said.

At Duke's business school, 34 graduate students were convicted of cheating on a take-home exam and other assignments. Twenty-four of them were expelled or suspended, and the rest received failing grades. At Ohio, several dozen engineering graduates were accused of plagiarizing master's or doctoral theses dating back two decades; at least one degree was revoked.

"Student attitudes are changing. The availability of the Internet makes access to some information easier," McCabe said. "It raises gray areas."

Harwood said stopping cheating is not the sole focus in building the new center.

"It's for faculty who like to give smarter tests, that go beyond paper and pencil," Harwood said.

Using computers for tests allows professors to include graphics, animation and even sound files that aren't possible to include in paper exams.

"Just the fact that they can test outside their class period, which will give them more time for instruction, that's their big advantage," Kerr said.

Professors also can more efficiently assemble lesson plans according to test results, if, for instance, many students miss questions in a certain subject area. And they can spend more time on tasks other than grading exams.

The programs to be used at the test center also allow professors to rotate exam questions or have them randomly selected from a pool so students have different versions of a test.

"What Penn State is trying to do is very innovative," said Noah Barsky, an accounting professor at Villanova University and a Penn State graduate. "When students go to a location on campus that has the distinction of being a dedicated testing facility, it brings a level of seriousness."

Barsky has firsthand knowledge of the benefits of technology in the classroom, having organized what he calls a "paperless" accounting class at Villanova.

Students must log on to get class material, which enables professors to keep tabs on how much time they spend with the material. And scores on proctored exams and in-class work can easily be compared.

"With technology, there are so many more things we can do. ... Immediate feedback to performance," Barsky said.


On the Net:

Penn State testing:

Center for Academic Integrity:

More from