The Risks to Testing Integrity in Public Safety Education: How Do You Respond?

Cheating is a constant threat to testing integrity in public safety education.

The integrity of testing is a major issue in the world of public safety training and throughout the educational arena. The transition to remote learning has led to cheating accusations this year at several academic institutions in Texas and Kansas as well as a high-profile scandal at West Point that involves more than six dozen cadets.

But the issue is not new. Collected research from the online education site OEDB.org, among other sources, offers a number of sobering statistics:

  • In an “informal” survey, 60 percent of college students admitted to cheating; 80 percent of college students in a more rigorous study admitted to “cheating in some way” in high school.
  • Of these, cheaters tend to have higher GPAs than their honest peers.
  • Roughly 85 percent of cheaters think that cheating is “essential” to their academic success.
  • In all, it is thought that 95 percent of academic cheaters do not get caught.

These findings are just a small sampling of research that suggests a shockingly high number of high school or college students have engaged, or currently engage, in test cheating, plagiarism, or some other form of academic dishonesty.

Greater risks in public safety training

Increasingly, cadets who enter first responder training come from a high school or college environment in which cheating is seen as a necessary convenience or tool for continued success, rather than stigmatized as the work of lazy or dishonest students. The potential risk is clear, considering the vital services these professionals provide. If students complete public safety training without developing the required skills, they will not be fully trained to meet the demands of the job, and their mistakes could risk their lives and the lives of others. Accordingly, public safety agencies and training organizations are under tremendous pressure to guarantee the integrity of high–stakes testing.

In a recent webinar titled “The Rise of Cheating in Public Safety,” presenters shared more subtle risks to organizations. A cheating scandal will obviously erode the public’s trust. It also can open an agency up to liability and have a devastating effect on department morale.

Techniques for improving test integrity

In offering solutions, webinar presenter and industry veteran Clive Savacool described how he develops and conducts tests in the fire service. Savacool built tests based on four high-level tentpoles: the ability to acquire, apply, analyze, and augment one’s knowledge beyond the narrow topics covered in coursework.

These themes can be applied in different ways depending on the test, coursework, and other factors. Tests can be based on written standards instead of focusing primarily on multiple–choice questions, which are notoriously vulnerable to cheaters. Agencies may also wish to use randomizing algorithms in test building to ensure that every test handed out is different in composition and content.

Ensuring the security of online tests

As more training is conducted remotely, the prevalence of online testing offers its own set of vulnerabilities. When taking a test or reviewing one’s answers, it may be tempting to copy the questions or save an image of the screen to share with others.

The testing features of modern training management systems, such as the industry-leading Acadis® Readiness Suite, are built to defeat this strategy in several ways: by disabling the “right-click” mouse functions, preventing copy/paste mouse actions, disabling common hotkey keyboard combinations, and ensuring that if the student moves the cursor out of the testing window, the questions and answers disappear. These and other anti-cheating methods are standard in only the most effective and comprehensive online testing platforms.

Trends and red flags

Other approaches rely less on sophisticated testing methods and more on the continuing analysis of student activity. Personnel may display recordable behavior trends, which makes it easier for supervisors to spot aberrations or other red flags. Tying it all together is the increased presence of hire-to-retire training management software systems such as Acadis, which can collect and centralize records—such as disciplinary notes and exam scores—from the moment cadets walk in the door to the moment they leave.

Keeping an eye on trends can make it easier to justify disciplinary actions. For example, thorough recordkeeping might reveal a top academic performer routinely failing to meet baseline standards in the field. Integrated training management software systems allow organizations to treat the individual’s history as a holistic representation (instead of a fragmented collection of one-off concerns), lending a higher degree of credibility to any case of suspected misconduct.

The public will hold an agency harshly accountable when allegations of dishonesty or cronyism arise. As agencies consider how to safeguard the public’s trust in an evolving public safety industry, technology to test, track, and evaluate personnel in a cohesive and impartial manner is an essential factor.

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