Remote exam nightmares
Online proctoring services frustrate students and risk data
In July, after years of surgical residency, months of studying, and more than $1,000 in test fees, Fernando Angarita sat down in his Toronto, Canada, living room to take the American general surgery board exam. Others taking the test had booked hotel rooms for privacy and stable internet.
COVID-19 had already pushed back the exam and canceled in-person testing. As Angarita’s test time came and went, he learned on Twitter that technical difficulties would delay it again. This time, the problem was ProctorTrack, the company hired to administer the test.
ProctorTrack is one of several remote proctoring companies that use employees or algorithms to analyze video of students taking tests and flag suspicious behavior for review. Students provide video of their test space to prove they don’t have textbooks or notes within reach, then take tests without breaking the video feed. The pandemic has fueled a surge in such remote solutions, but students say the services are invasive and insecure.
It’s hard to measure how much students have cheated since the pandemic. Chegg, an online study service students sometimes use to share exam questions, told The New York Times in June that business doubled when schools closed. Pre-pandemic, 62 percent of college students reported cheating at least occasionally in a study published by a testing association. A May survey by education company Wiley found 93 percent of professors believe students cheat more online, but noted previous studies found less cheating online than in-person.
One company, ProctorU, reported that the number of cheating attempts in exams it administered jumped from 1 percent to 8 percent this year, according to The Hechinger Report. In response, 54 percent of colleges and universities are using remote proctoring, and another quarter are considering it, an Educause poll found. The CEO of Proctorio told EdSurge in November that it administered 3.5 million tests in October 2020 alone compared to 6 million in all of 2019.
But many students say it’s a bad solution. More than 60,000 have signed petitions against remote proctoring. In a viral TikTok video, a sobbing student said a professor gave her a zero after proctoring software flagged her as suspicious for reading a question aloud. On Twitter and Reddit, students say proctors show up late and having a stranger watch increases test anxiety, hurting their grades. Algorithms record extra eye movement as suspicious, a disadvantage for students with tics. Students of color have complained that proctor software struggles to recognize them, suggesting they need brighter light. Unstable internet locks students out of tests.
Isolated glitches aren’t the only problem. An October security leak from ProctorTrack revealed poorly written software potentially gave unauthorized employees access to sensitive student information like facial recognition and contact information, according to Consumer Reports. ProctorTrack said in a statement no identifiable personal information was leaked.
Lily Gutnik took the exam from Salt Lake City, Utah, and said her proctor had her download more software mid-test. Angarita had uploaded an ID card to ProctorTrack and now wonders if it was compromised.
Some professors are also concerned: The Educause survey found faculty resisted remote proctoring at 32 percent of institutions. One professor called it “not great pedagogy,” while another described it as “legitimately evil.”
Some try to avoid the need for proctoring software by writing exams designed to show understanding, not memorization. The College Board rewrote this year’s Advanced Placement exams for at-home testing, with open-note, short-answer questions. The exam still featured anti-plagiarism software and identity verification to combat cheating.
Rethinking tests may be necessary to prevent what some are calling a cheating arms race: Students find loopholes in proctor software and post workarounds online, such as writing on laptop screens with dry erase markers to avoid detection.
In Canada, Angarita took a different board exam online before his July test. With fewer students and a different proctoring service, the exam went smoothly. But after weeks of town hall meetings and investigation, the American Board of Surgery canceled the July exam results and delayed the test until April 2021, to be administered in person. The board also gave Angarita a year’s subscription to a credit monitoring service in case of identity theft from poor exam security.
Angarita will have to study again for the general board even though he’s already moved on to a specialized breast cancer fellowship. He’s glad the board didn’t certify uncertain test results but worried COVID-19 will delay in-person testing again.
“I need the exam,” Angarita said. “I can’t get a full-time position down the road and keep it if I don’t have that certification.”
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