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When universities went online in response to Covid-19, so did the tests their students took. But one of the people who logged on to take an exam in a pre-med chemistry class at a well-known mid-Atlantic university turned out not to be a student at all.

He was a plant. An imposter. A paid ringer.

Proctors — remote monitors some schools have hired to watch test-takers through their webcams — discovered by reviewing video recordings that this same person had taken tests for at least a dozen different students enrolled at seven universities across the country. The camera caught a spreadsheet tacked to the wall of his workspace with student names, course schedules, remote login information and passwords for websites that could feed him answers.

“We can only imagine what the rate of inappropriate testing activity is when no one is watching.”

Scott McFarland, CEO, ProctorU

But he was in Qatar, beyond the reach of any attempts to hold him accountable, according to proctors familiar with the situation. They could not say what happened to the students who allegedly hired him.

It was a dramatic case, but far from unique. Universal online testing has created a documented increase in cheating, often because universities, colleges and testing companies were unprepared for the scale of the transformation or unable or unwilling to pay for safeguards, according to faculty and testing experts.

Even with trained proctors watching test-takers and checking their IDs, cheating is up. Before Covid-19 forced millions of students online, one of the companies that provides that service, ProctorU, caught people cheating on fewer than 1 percent of the 340,000 exams it administered from January through March. During the height of remote testing, the company says, the number of exams it supervised jumped to 1.3 million from April through June, and the cheating rate rose above 8 percent.

“We can only imagine what the rate of inappropriate testing activity is when no one is watching,” said Scott McFarland, CEO of ProctorU.

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And for most online test-takers, no one has been watching. One reason is that, as demand for online testing spiked, proctoring capacity was overwhelmed. One company, Examity, suspended its live proctoring services during the demand surge when its 1,000 proctors in India were locked down to curb the spread of the coronavirus there.

Purdue University. Engineering faculty at Purdue have been outspoken about the problem of online cheating, which they say was “rampant” after Purdue gave students extra time to take their tests online. Credit: AJ Mast for The Hechinger Report

Ninety-three percent of instructors think students are more likely to cheat online than in person, according to a survey conducted in May by the publishing and digital education company Wiley. Only a third said they were using some type of proctoring to prevent it. Many colleges and universities moved ahead with online testing without supervision to save money. Others opted instead for less expensive, scaled-down kinds of test security, such as software that can lock a web browser while a student takes a test.

While locking a browser during an exam may help — and about 15 percent of instructors take that step, the Wiley survey found — it can’t stop other forms of cheating.

“You cannot give an exam if it is not proctored,” said Charles M. Krousgrill, a professor of engineering at Purdue, where faculty have been more willing to publicly discuss cheating than their counterparts at many other schools.

When, after the Covid shutdowns, Purdue gave students extra time to take their tests online, said Krousgrill, “there was rampant dishonesty.” He described some students in his department organizing videoconferences and sharing answers. “Once we went to online instruction, we could not watch. [The students] knew it, and knew the game was up for grabs. There were lots of kids who got caught up in that.”  

ProctorU, which provides proctors to be sure online test-takers follow the rules, caught people cheating on fewer than 1 percent of exams it administered before the Covid-19 outbreak. Since then the number has jumped to more than 8 percent.

Online tests have also meant a booming business for companies that sell homework and test answers, including Chegg and Course Hero. Students pay subscription fees to get answers to questions on tests or copies of entire tests with answers already provided. The tests are uploaded by other students who have already taken them, in exchange for credits, or answers are quickly provided by “tutors” who work for the sites.

For $9.95 a month, Chegg is offering a new service that provides fast answers to math problems submitted by smartphone camera, step-by-step solution included. Snap a pic, get the answer.

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Though these sites have been around since before the pandemic, their use appears to have exploded as more tests are given online. Students used Chegg to allegedly cheat on online exams and tests in the spring at schools including Georgia Tech, Boston University, North Carolina State and Purdue, according to faculty at those institutions and news reports. Universities prefer not to talk about cheating incidents, and federal privacy law limits how much detail they can provide.

At North Carolina State, more than 200 of the 800 students in a single Statistics 311 class were referred for disciplinary action for getting answers to exam questions from a company that offers online tutoring services.

At North Carolina State, more than 200 of the 800 students in a single Statistics 311 class were referred for disciplinary action for using “tutor-provided solutions” to exam questions from Chegg, said Tyler Johnson, the course coordinator.

After the exam, Johnson said, he asked his university to get Chegg to remove the questions, citing copyright law. Chegg did, and furnished a report of users who had either posted or accessed the exam materials.

“I was initially really naive to the extent to which these services are utilized by students,” he said.

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The North Carolina State students have protested in a petition that they didn’t know using Chegg would be considered cheating, and that Johnson showed “no regard to the personal stresses we are enduring and have endured throughout the semester.”

Krousgrill and his colleagues at Purdue asked Chegg to remove their exam materials, too, and asked for help identifying cheaters. They found “a massive number” of students who had used Chegg to get test answers, he said. In one class, Krousgrill said, as many as 60 students out of 250 had done it, and 100 students in a colleague’s class were identified as having used Chegg in a similar fashion.

“I do feel for the students,” Eric Nauman, a professor of engineering and director of the engineering honors program at Purdue, told a web panel for engineering faculty and majors convened to discuss the use of Chegg and similar services for cheating. “If one person starts using it and gets a better grade and these exams are graded on a curve, then they’re in big trouble.”

The number of students who are cheating is almost certainly higher than the number being caught or reported. Research has shown that instructors believe cheating happens much less often than students do, which means they may not be looking for it. When they do find it, many choose to simply give cheaters an F, without reporting the incidents further.

“I do feel for the students. … If one person starts using [an online service] and gets a better grade and these exams are graded on a curve, then they’re in big trouble.”

Eric Nauman, professor of engineering and director of the engineering honors program, Purdue University

“I had a conversation with a group of students several months ago,” said James Pitarresi, vice provost at Binghamton University. “And one of the students said, ‘Look, you know, probably 80 percent of the class is looking at Chegg. What are you going to do, expel all of us?’ ”

For most faculty, their only recourse is to ask the companies to remove their exam materials and identify cheaters. But that can take days or even weeks, and happens after the materials have already been shared and an exam is over. It also puts the burden on professors to go site by site, search for their material and ask that it be taken down. “I go through every couple of months and write to them and say, ‘Please take these 200 or 300 items off your site,’ ” said Krousgrill. “But that takes a lot of time.” Especially, he said, when his students are getting answers in 10 minutes.

The cheaters are often way ahead. Message boards at Reddit are filled with warnings to students not to use their school email addresses or real names when signing up for Chegg or similar services. That makes catching cheaters nearly impossible. Even when professors try to preempt Chegg and other sites ahead of time, as one did by embedding a trackable code in test questions, students figured it out and worked around it, according to faculty familiar with the example, although they wouldn’t identify which institution did this.

Chegg, which offers online tutoring services, declined to comment at length. A spokesman said the company supports academic integrity and hasn’t seen “any relative increase in honor code issues since the Covid-19 crisis began.” In an interview with The New York Times, Chegg chief executive Dan Rosensweig, when  asked whether his company’s services were being used for cheating, said: “Let’s face it: Students have always found a way, whether it’s in fraternities, or whether they go to Google. But Chegg is not built for that.”

A student takes an online exam for a business course. One online proctoring company has provided figures showing a dramatic increase in cheating since education went online because of the coronavirus. Credit: Katie Falkenberg/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The company reported $153 million in revenue for the second quarter, when the pandemic shutdowns were at their peak — a 63 percent year-over-year increase. 

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Chegg CFO Andy Brown told investors in a video call, “We’ve clearly been seeing tailwinds since the shelter in place and kids were learning off campus.”

Colleges were not the only institutions to rush examinations online. Advanced placement and other tests also went virtual in the spring and the parent College Board said it was prepared to move the SAT online in the fall if necessary but then reversed itself.*  So did law school entrance and placement exams, professional certification tests for financial managers and food handlers and many others.

The College Board, which administers the AP tests, reconfigured these exams to be “open book” when they were moved online, but without proctoring. Students reportedly used private messaging apps to collaborate on answers. Even before the exams began, College Board officials tweeted about “a ring of students who were developing plans to cheat” and canceled their registrations.

The College Board won’t disclose whether any cheating actually happened. A spokesman would say only that “at-home testing presents some different security challenges” and that the organization took steps to prevent it.

There are other reasons besides just having the opportunity that students are cheating online. About a quarter of students “indicated that it should be expected that students will use whatever is available to them in a take-home or online test,” according to research published in the spring by the Journal of the National College Testing Association. It said “any inaction on the part of the faculty to provide a secure exam administration was seen [by students] as an indication that the faculty did not care about” cheating.

“One student with a pattern of cheating is an ethical problem for that student. Multiple students with a pattern of cheating devalues any grade or degree they might be receiving,” Steve Saladin, a co-author of the study, said. “And when cheating spreads to many students in many programs and schools, degrees and grades cease to provide a measure of an individual’s preparedness for a profession or position. And perhaps even more importantly, it suggests a society that blindly accepts any means to an end as a given.”

*This story has been updated to correct that the SAT was not moved online in the spring.

This story about online testing was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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