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Proctoring and Monitoring Definitions Issued by NCTA Is An Important Step Forward in Exam Integrity

Dr. Ashley Norris

When you add it all up, colleges, training programs, certification and licensing organizations and others invest perhaps a billion dollars a year in online test security – making sure their exams are safe and fair and that those who take them are not cheating. That’s a good amount of money. 

So, given that online test security is such a big and important market, it feels odd that those of us in the industry of protecting exams haven’t developed a common language. We have no common vocabulary to describe what we do and the valuable services we provide. And that’s been its own costly problem. 

Take one of the most basic test integrity services for example, having someone watch someone else take a test or assessment. It could be a professor, or a trained person in a professional testing center, or a volunteer, or a trained observer doing their observing online via webcam. It’s hard to believe, but we – those of us in the industry – don’t have a standard term for that process.    

We generally know what a person who does the observing is called, but only generally. In the United States they’re usually called a proctor. In Europe and Australia, they are more likely to be known as invigilators. 

And what do we call the process of monitoring a test to ensure that test rules are being equitably followed by everyone? In the States, it’s commonly called test proctoring; elsewhere it’s invigilation. 

That may not be a big deal – different terms in different parts of the world. 

But what about when the process of observing a test is done by computers instead of people? When, for example, a camera records a test session and parts of it are watched later or parts are computer-analyzed for unusual or suspicious behavior? 

There has never been a clear language or a terminology distinction for that type of non-human test security, or for when test or exam sessions are not observed in real time, while the test is happening. For a long time, most people have referred to any form of test integrity system that could possibly be watched or reviewed as “proctoring” or, again, as “invigilation.” 

And honestly, the differences are very important. 

Real-time, human test proctors can do things that aren’t possible in test sessions that are recorded and reviewed later. For one, proctors can intercede to stop cheating as it’s happening or even stop a potential cheating incident before it happens. Live online proctors can simply disconnect a test session if misconduct is taking place. On the other hand, neither one of these scenarios can happen once an exam is over. At that point, all anyone can do is know that it happened, after the test is already compromised. 

In fact, it’s probably worse than even that. Our own review of test sessions showed that when a test session is recorded and analyzed by computer for abnormal test conduct and then passed on to a professor or testing body for review, only about 12% of those abnormal test behavior incidents were watched by a person. Ever. That means that, discounting any deterrence effect, about 88% of the time, simply recording a test session was almost pointless – like having security cameras at a bank but not plugging them in. A potential bank robber may see the cameras and think twice, but the cameras themselves won’t do anything to stop an actual robbery or even catch the robber after they’ve made off with the loot.

In addition to simply being unclear, using the same term for wildly different products and practices has likely led to confusion by test and credential providers. Many may think they’re getting the best possible prevention and security when they’re not. Others may be overpaying for a top-of-the-line live intervention system of test integrity when they’re comfortable with a less costly, after-the-fact approach. As a result, some exams are probably more costly than they could be while others are less secure and less fair than they should be. If both services are called “exam proctoring” who could ever really know what they are or are not getting.  

That’s why it was really good news when the National College Testing Association (NCTA) recently stepped forward to write and share terms and definitions for testing and test integrity. They are based in the United States where the term we use is “proctor” instead of “invigilate.”  

Where these terms are really helpful is in clarifying that test security provisions should not be called “proctoring” unless a human is observing a test session in real time, either in person or online. When a test session is recorded for use or review or analysis after-the-fact, NCTA states that process should be called “monitoring” not “proctoring.”  That’s a very helpful clarification. 

It’s very likely that clear terminology will help schools and professors and professional and licensing organizations make better decisions about what they’re investing in and why. 

By Ashley Norris

About the Author: Dr. Ashley Norris has spent nearly 15 years in higher education as a faculty member and administrator across major institutions including the University of Alabama and Samford University. Most recently, she served as the dean of programmatic accreditation and regulatory affairs at the University of Phoenix. Currently, Dr. Norris is the chief academic and chief compliance officer at Meazure Learning. 

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