Graduate School Admissions Test Controversy Grows

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Six thousand business school students might have their GMAT scores canceled because they subscribed to a test prep site that posted questions currently in use on the test.

(Soundbite of movie trailer "The Perfect Score")

Unidentified Announcer: Six different students...

Mr. CHRIS EVANS: (As Kyle) Well, maybe we thought this was bigger than us one on one, but there's no way it's going to beat all of us together.

Unidentified Announcer: With six different dreams, and one last shot at the perfect score...


That is from the 2000 movie - the 2004 movie, "The Perfect Score." Tagline, the SAT is hard to take. It's even harder to steal. Well, then, consider the GMAT. Each year, over 100,000 students take that test in order to get into a really good business school. They could be born math geniuses, and therefore study a little. They could be of normal-to-above-average math ability and study a lot, or they could just cheat. Option three became more viable recently when a test-prep company offered insiders who were willing to pay an extra fee a peak at not practice questions but real live questions from the exam.

Six thousand test-takers might have had access to those live test questions. For a look at cheating on the Graduate Management Admission Test and other big time standardized tests, we're joined by Greg Cizek, and he's the author of "Cheating on Tests: How to Do it, Detect it and Prevent it." Hello, Greg. How are you?

Dr. GREG CIZEK (Educational Measurement and Evaluation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education; Author, "Cheating on Tests: How to Do it, Detect it, and Prevent it"): Good morning, Mike. Fine, thanks.

PESCA: Do you think most people buy your book because they want the how-to-do-it part?

Dr. CIZEK: Well, I hope not. Although one indication is if it's being stolen from libraries, then people are using it in appropriately.

PESCA: Yeah. Once you have cheating, how to do it, you're just inviting that sort of thing, aren't you?

Dr. CIZEK: Well, in a way you are, but one of the reasons - there was actually some debate about whether to include that in the title. One of the reasons we did it is because if you're going to take an active role in preventing cheating, you have to know how it occurs.

PESCA: Yes. In order to catch a cheat, you have to be a cheat.

Dr. CIZEK: It takes a thief.

PESCA: Yes. A decade ago, the GMAT went all-computer. Does that make it harder to cheat? In other words, no paper and pencil, no filling in bubbles, you have to take that test on the computer. Does that make it easier or harder to cheat on that test?

Dr. CIZEK: It does reduce some security concerns, because you can't grab an entire test booklet and run out of the room.

PESCA: And also, you know, let me give you my qualifications. I cheated on all my tests - no, that's not it. For five years, I taught at a big prep test or a test-prep company. I taught, you know, instructed kids on how to take the GMAT, or adults, also on the SATs, on the LSAT. I taught here, I taught abroad, and that brings in a whole raft of concerns. I also know droplet is to deluge as bubble is to foam, so those are my qualifications. And I found that with a paper-and-pencil test, it involved a lot of cheating because you still had that answer sheet and you could always go back to a previous section. Or you could, you know, during a break talk to a friend and find out what the definition of that word was.

Dr. CIZEK: Right.

PESCA: Does that sort of stuff go on all the time?

Dr. CIZEK: Yep. All the time.

PESCA: And so what do you do to prevent it?

Dr. CIZEK: Well, going to computer is one way. If we're still talking about the paper-and-pencil world, one of the important things I think we need to do more about is to inform test takers about their responsibilities, and I don't think we've always done a good job of that. That's going to discourage some folks, but for those people who want to gain a competitive advantage, they're still going to do it no matter how much you inform them.

PESCA: Can you explain how this computer test can be cheated on? And what do we mean by those live questions?

Dr. CIZEK: Sure. What happens is the testing organization has a limited, what we call, an item bank or an item pool. It's just a database of questions. And to give a test, what the computer does is it goes in and it selects a question for you based on your response to a previous question. It starts you out with kind of a middle-difficulty-level question, sort of an average, you know, fastball, and then if you answer it correctly, it gives you a little bit tougher one. If you answer it incorrectly, it gives you a little bit easier one.

And so, every person's test in a way is sort of customized for that person depending on your pattern of right and wrong answers. Now, the problem is, is that that's a limited pool of questions to draw each person's test from. And so, the way people cheat, at least in this case and in many other cases that have yet been undetected, people will memorize those questions, go out and dump them somewhere. They dump them on a bulletin board, or a website, or a test-prep company, so the company can then claim that it's exposing you to questions that are actually likely to be on your exam.

PESCA: If you have a network of confederates, I mean, you could do it casually with your friends, but if there are people and that's their job and their job is to take the test and get three questions right, so now you're only dealing with the harder questions, yeah, a lot of those questions could be known and transmitted to someone else who's taking the test next week.

Dr. CIZEK: Absolutely. The GRE, the Graduate Record Exam, had a large problem with this overseas, where a very sizable proportion, almost their entire item pool, was compromised for that exam, and they had to stop the computer administrations for awhile.

PESCA: So, was it better to just have a test on a certain day and once that one test was taken, you know, July 3rd will be the test, and everyone takes the test on July 3rd, maybe in different time zones, but once that test is gone, we'll never see those questions again? Is that smarter?

Dr. CIZEK: Well, that would be smarter, but it would raise the fees the candidates have to pay substantially, because test questions are incredibly expensive to develop. People don't know that it probably costs in the order of about 2,000 dollars for every test question that appears on a test, because it has to pass through editors and people who screen it for bias and sensitivity to different cultures.

And it has to be tried out with live examinees under real conditions, and there's so many stages it goes through before it ever gets onto a real form that some of them are lost, you know, the ones that are developed are never used because they don't meet the quality standards. So it can take thousands of dollars to develop a single test question. So if you're talking about developing a completely new test form, let's say, of 100 questions, you're into a couple hundred thousand dollars easily.

PESCA: Given that business school students - potential business school students are pretty good at math, and they know the odds, and they know that even a score of, like, 40 points higher, at least they perceive that it could make the difference of millions in a lifetime.

Dr. CIZEK: True.

PESCA: You know, it doesn't surprise me that 6,000 people paid 30 bucks, which isn't a lot in the scope of things, to get access to live questions. Does it surprise the GMAC, the makers of the test?

Dr. CIZEK: You know, I don't think it should surprise them. It certainly doesn't surprise me, and I don't think it would surprise many folks who are actually in business schools. I mean, we're talking, you know, the Law School Admission Test, the Medical College Admission Test, tests like that, they're competitive to begin with, but the business school cultures too are very competitive. I mean, it's an entrepreneurial capitalistic kind of system where you want to gain an advantage. And success in that field is, you know, to gain that competitive edge.

PESCA: So BusinessWeek reported about the story that we're talking about and the 6,000 live questions, or the live questions, those students can have their scores invalidated. Is that proper? I guess some of them are claiming, we didn't know we were cheating.

Dr. CIZEK: Well, you know, that's a tough one. You really - it would be difficult to take action against somebody who was inadvertently exposed or did not know that they were getting improper materials. But from what I've seen, and the site is taken down now that people were accessing, so I haven't been able to actually look at the real site, but supposedly there was plenty of information there that alerted people to the fact that they were going to be seeing real live GMAT test questions. And they should have every - should have had every indication that that was improper.

PESCA: Greg Cizek, professor at UNC Chapel Hill. I'm going to guess his classes are essay mostly. He studies test security and cheating on tests, and he wrote "Cheating on Tests: How to Do it, Detect it and Prevent it." Thank you, Greg.

Dr. CIZEK: Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: Coming up on the BPP, military wives becoming surrogate moms. We'll talk to one, and somebody who runs such a business. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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